Dwarf AGNs from variability for the origins of seeds (DAVOS): Intermediate-mass black hole demographics from optical synoptic surveys

Colin J. Burke, Yue Shen, Xin Liu, Priyamvada Natarajan, Neven Caplar, Jillian M. Bellovary, Z. Franklin Wang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We present a phenomenological forward Monte Carlo model for forecasting the population of active galactic nuclei (AGNs) in dwarf galaxies observable via their optical variability. Our model accounts for expected changes in the spectral energy distribution of AGNs in the intermediate-mass black hole (IMBH) mass range and uses observational constraints on optical variability as a function of black hole (BH) mass to generate mock light curves. Adopting several different models for the BH occupation function, including one for off-nuclear IMBHs, we quantify differences in the predicted local AGN mass and luminosity functions in dwarf galaxies. As a result, we are able to model the fraction of variable AGNs as a function of important galaxy host properties, such as host galaxy stellar mass, in the presence of selection effects. We find that our adopted occupation fractions for the 'heavy' and 'light' initial BH seeding scenarios can be distinguished with variability at the 2-3σ level for galaxy host stellar masses below ~108Mθ with data from the upcoming Vera C. Rubin Observatory. We also demonstrate the prevalence of a selection bias whereby recovered IMBH masses fall, on average, above the predicted value from the local host galaxy-BH mass scaling relation with the strength of this bias dependent on the survey sensitivity. Our methodology can be used more broadly to calibrate AGN demographic studies in synoptic surveys. Finally, we show that a targeted ~hourly cadence program over a few nights with the Rubin Observatory can provide strong constraints on IMBH masses given their expected rapid variability time-scales.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1880-1904
Number of pages25
JournalMonthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 1 2023


  • black hole physics
  • galaxies: dwarf
  • galaxies: nuclei

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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