After 180 million years buried in volcanic rock in the southern tip of Sweden, a recently discovered fern fossil looks almost as good as new.
The matchbox-sized fossil is among the best ever preserved: Thin slices viewed under a microscope reveal rounded cells jam-packed in the stem, like water balloons stuffed in a barrel. And inside the cells, within tiny dots of nuclei, the shadowy squiggles of chromosomes appear.
Such exquisite detail was probably preserved when minerals dissolved in hot salty water rapidly solidified within the entombed, living plant, paleobotanist Benjamin Bomfleur of the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm and colleagues report in the March 21 Science.
Because the fossil’s nuclei closely resemble those of the modern cinnamon fern, Osmundastrum cinnamomeum, the researchers suggest that the plants’ genomes probably haven’t changed much since Early Jurassic dinosaurs prowled the planet.