RSU Assistant Professor’s Rare Paleontological Find Cited in Paper Published in ‘Frontiers in Earth Science’

group posing for photo

Dr. Chris Shelton (kneeling, left) and his expedition party in 2016, during which he uncovered the fossils of an extinct creature known as the mosasaurus.

A Rogers State University faculty member’s rare discovery while on an expedition in South Africa was cited in a recent research article published in a leading field journal.

While on an expedition into KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa in 2016, RSU Assistant Professor Dr. Chris Shelton uncovered a fossil vertebrae belonging to a creature called a mosasaurus – only the second such specimen to be found in the country at that time, the first of which was discovered in 1901 in Eastern Cape, South Africa. A third fossil has since been identified in the Pretoria collection by one of his colleagues.

Shelton’s discovery was cited in “Unraveling the Taxonomy of the South Africa Mosasaurids,” a paper which examines the classification of the mosasaurid group, enormous aquatic lizards that lived during the Cretaceous period.

One of the paper’s co-authors, Anusuya Chinsamy, is a noted South African vertebrate paleontologist. She was head of the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Cape Town (UCT) during Shelton’s time at the university and it was on one of her expeditions that Shelton made his discovery.

“I was in South Africa at the University of Cape Town, doing my post-doctoral research, and was there for two years, after completing my Ph.D. in Germany,” Shelton said. “It was during an expedition in 2016 when we were looking for dinosaur remains, which we never found, although we did find some prehistoric Cretaceous turtle remains. But we did find what we believed was the tailbone of what we later learned belonged to a smaller species of the mosasaurs.”

Mosasaurids are an extinct group of enormous marine reptiles that lived during the Cretaceous period and inhabited the Atlantic Ocean. Their fossil remains have been found in North and South America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Antarctica.

During Shelton’s expedition, the group also found a few teeth from a megalodon – a prehistoric shark and the largest ever known – as well as prehistoric whale bones embedded in rocks.

“I’ve found other fossils, but this was the first time I’d found those belonging to a mosasaurid, which, being that it was only the second time those have been identified in South Africa, was quite a find,” he said. “When we got it (the fossil) out of the ground, we packaged it securely for travel and took it back to UCT with rock and other materials from the dig site, as was allowed, given our permits.

“We had some interesting experiences getting those (rocks) through the King Shaka International Airport’s security. Initially, they weren’t going to let us on the plane with the fossils as they thought they could be used as ‘weapons,’” he laughed, “but they called the pilots, we went to the cockpit and showed them our fossils and were eventually allowed to bring them on board.”

Shelton’s historic research was eventually incorporated into the paper co-authored by Chinsamy, Megan Rose Woolley and Michael Wayne Caldwell, and published in December 2022 in “Frontiers in Earth Science,” a leading journal in its field with more than 21,000 citations and 12 million views across 4,400 articles.

Shelton’s latest papers include “Bone Histology of the Graviportal Dinocephalian Therapsid Jonkeria from the Middle Permian Tapinocephalus Assemblage Zone of the Karoo Basin of South Africa” and “Inter-Element Variation in the Bone Histology of Anteosaurus (Dinocephalia Anteosauridae) from the Tapinocephalus Assemblage Zone of the Karoo Basin of South Africa.” Another recent paper was titled “Bone Histology of Dinocephalians: Palaeobiological and Palaeoecological Inferences,” which was published in the peer reviewed academic journal “Papers in Paleontology.”

Although Shelton said his opportunities to go on expeditions have “slowed considerably” since the arrival of COVID, he’s thankful for the experiences he’s had and would welcome the chance to go on future expeditions.

Dr. Chris Shelton holds a bachelor’s degree in geology from Midwestern State University, a master’s degree in biology from Midwestern State University, and a doctorate in vertebrate paleontology/paleohistory from the University of Bonn in Germany. He has been appointed as the geology chair for the Oklahoma Academy of Science and is an honorary research associate of the New Jersey State Museum’s Natural Department of History.

Shelton’s earth science courses at Rogers State University explore prehistoric life and its evolution through geologic time.

To read the paper which cites Shelton’s research, visit