University of Maryland doctoral student Nathan Jud said was looking at a batch of ancient plant fossils in the Smithsonian Natural History Museum's collections when a particular fossil caught his eye, Smithsonian.com reported Friday.
"It looked sort of like a little piece of fern, so I tried to remove a bit of the rock that was covering it to get a sense of what type of fern it was," he said. "But the more of the rock I would lift off the surface, the more fossil I found buried. What I thought had been one little piece of a leaf actually turned out to be two, connected to each other."
"Eventually, I realized this wasn't a fern at all, but some kind of early flowering plant," he said.
Reporting his work in the American Journal of Botany, Jud said the fossil, at somewhere between 125 and 115 million years old, is among the oldest flowering plants ever found in North America.
While flowering plants now dominate the planet, for the first 300 million years of plant existence -- beginning around 450 million years ago -- vegetation was limited to older, more primitive families such as algae, mosses and ferns.
"When I compared it to living plants, I realized it was remarkably similar to the leaves of a certain group of modern poppies," he said. "I didn't expect to see a group that seemingly modern in a collection that old."