Observations suggest systematic differences between chemical abundances of stars in satellite galaxies and those in the Milky Way halo. Specifically, for the same [Fe/H] values, stars in surviving satellite galaxies display significantly lower [α/Fe] ratios than stars in the stellar halo.
Here we investigate whether the observed differences can be explained in the framework of hierarchical structure formation. We model the chemical enrichment of a typical Milky Way galaxy in a ΛCDM Universe using, in combination, i) a semi-analytical code and numerical simulations that model the accretion and disruption of halo substructure and ii) a chemical evolution model that takes into account each satellite's star formation, metal enrichment and stellar feedback. Our results suggest that the observed chemical abundance patterns are a natural outcome in the process of hierarchical assembly of the Galaxy. We find that the stellar halo is built up from satellite galaxies accreted early on (more than 8–9 Gyr ago) and enriched in α-elements produced in Type II supernovae (average [α/Fe] values between 0.2–0.5). In contrast, satellites which survive today were typically accreted late (within the last 4–5 Gyr) and had at the time of accretion nearly solar [α/Fe] values as a result of the longer contribution of Type Ia supernovae.