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Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society


Interactions between galaxies are predicted to cause gas inflows that can potentially trigger nuclear activity. Since the inflowing material can obscure the central regions of interacting galaxies, a potential limitation of previous optical studies is that obscured Active Galactic Nuclei (AGNs) can be missed at various stages along the merger sequence. We present the first large mid-infrared study of AGNs in mergers and galaxy pairs, in order to quantify the incidence of obscured AGNs triggered by interactions. The sample consists of galaxy pairs and post-mergers drawn from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey that are matched to detections by the Wide Field Infrared Sky Explorer (WISE). We find that the fraction of AGN in the pairs, relative to a mass-, redshift- and environment-matched control sample, increases as a function of decreasing projected separation. This enhancement is most dramatic in the post-merger sample, where we find a factor of 10-20 excess in the AGN fraction compared with the control. Although this trend is in qualitative agreement with results based on optical AGN selection, the mid-infrared selected AGN excess increases much more dramatically in the post-mergers than is seen for optical AGN. Our results suggest that energetically dominant optically obscured AGNs become more prevalent in the most advanced mergers, consistent with theoretical predictions.