As a tyrannosaurid, Albertosaurus was a bipedal predator with tiny, two-fingered hands and a massive head with dozens of large, sharp teeth. It may have been at the top of the food chain in its local ecosystem. Although relatively large for a theropod, Albertosaurus was much smaller than its more famous relative Tyrannosaurus, probably weighing less than 2 metric tons.
Fossils of more than thirty individuals have been recovered, providing scientists with a more detailed knowledge of Albertosaurus anatomy than is available for most other tyrannosaurids. The discovery of 22 individuals at one site provides evidence of pack behavior and allows studies of ontogeny and population biology which are impossible with lesser-known dinosaurs.
Albertosaurus was smaller than the truly gigantic tyrannosaurids like Tarbosaurus and Tyrannosaurus. Typical adults measured up to 9 meters (30 ft) long, while rare individuals of great age could grow to over 10 meters (33 ft) in length. Several independent mass estimates, obtained by different methods, suggest that an adult Albertosaurus weighed between 1.3 tonnes (1.4 short tons) and 1.7 tonnes (1.9 tons). The massive skull of Albertosaurus, perched on a short, S-shaped neck, was approximately 1 meter (3.3 ft) long in the largest adults. Wide openings in the skull (fenestrae) reduced the weight of the head while also providing space for muscle attachment and sensory organs. Its long jaws contained more than 60 banana-shaped teeth; larger tyrannosaurids possessed fewer teeth. Unlike most theropods, Albertosaurus and other tyrannosaurids were heterodont, with teeth of different forms depending on their position in the mouth. The premaxillary teeth at the tip of the upper jaw were much smaller than the rest, more closely packed, and D-shaped in cross section. Above the eyes were short bony crests that may have been brightly colored in life and used in courtship to attract a mate.
All tyrannosaurids, including Albertosaurus, shared a similar body appearance. Typically for a theropod, Albertosaurus was bipedal and balanced the heavy head and torso with a long tail. However, tyrannosaurid forelimbs were extremely small for their body size and retained only two digits. The hind limbs were long and ended in a four-toed foot. The first digit, called the hallux, was short and only the other three contacted the ground, with the third (middle) digit longer than the rest. Albertosaurus may have been able to reach speeds of 25-30 miles per hour.
The other major subfamily of tyrannosaurids is the Tyrannosaurinae, including Daspletosaurus, Tarbosaurus and Tyrannosaurus. Compared with these robust tyrannosaurines, albertosaurines had slender builds, with proportionately smaller skulls and longer bones of the lower leg (tibia) and feet (metatarsals and phalanges).
The type specimen is a partial skull, collected in 1884 from an outcrop of the Horseshoe Canyon Formation alongside the Red Deer River in Alberta. This specimen and a smaller skull associated with some skeletal material were recovered by expeditions of the Geological Survey of Canada, led by the famous geologist Joseph B. Tyrrell. The two skulls were assigned to the preexisting species "Laelaps incrassatus" by Edward Drinker Cope in 1892, despite the fact that the name Laelaps was preoccupied by a genus of mite and had been changed to Dryptosaurus in 1877 by Othniel Charles Marsh. Cope refused to recognize the new name created by his archrival Marsh, so it fell to Lawrence Lambe to change "Laelaps incrassatus" to Dryptosaurus incrassatus when he described the remains in detail in 1904. Shortly later, Osborn pointed out that D. incrassatus was based on generic tyrannosaurid teeth, so the two Alberta skulls could not be confidently referred to that species. The Alberta skulls also differed markedly from the remains of D. aquilunguis, type species of Dryptosaurus, so Osborn created the new name Albertosaurus sarcophagus for them in 1905. He did not describe the remains in any great detail, citing Lambe's complete description the year before. Both specimens (CMN 5600 and 5601) are stored in the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa.
In 2003, Phil Currie compared several tyrannosaurid skulls and came to the conclusion that the two species are more distinct than previously thought. The decision to use one or two genera is rather arbitrary, as the two species are sister taxa, more closely related to each other than to any other species. Recognizing this, Currie nevertheless recommended that Albertosaurus and Gorgosaurus be retained as separate genera, as they are no more similar than Daspletosaurus and Tyrannosaurus, which are almost always separated. In addition, several albertosaurine specimens have been recovered from Alaska and New Mexico, and Currie suggested that the Albertosaurus-Gorgosaurus situation may be clarified once these are described fully. Most authors have followed Currie's recommendation, but some have not.
Albertosaurus megagracilis was based on a small tyrannosaurid skeleton from the Hell Creek Formation of Montana. It was renamed Dinotyrannus in 1995, but is now thought to represent a juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex.
Most age categories of Albertosaurus are represented in the fossil record. Using bone histology, the age of an individual animal at the time of death can often be determined, allowing growth rates to be estimated and compared with other species. The youngest known Albertosaurus is a two-year-old discovered in the Dry Island bonebed, which would have weighed about 50 kilograms (110 lb) and measured slightly more than 2 meters (7 ft) in length. The 10 meter (33 ft) specimen from the same quarry is the oldest and largest known, at 28 years of age. When specimens of intermediate age and size are plotted on a graph, an S-shaped growth curve results, with the most rapid growth occurring in a four-year period ending around the sixteenth year of life, a pattern also seen in other tyrannosaurids. The growth rate during this phase was 122 kilograms (268 lb) per year, based on an adult 1.3 tonnes (1.4 short tons). Other studies have suggested higher adult weights; this would affect the magnitude of the growth rate but not the overall pattern. Tyrannosaurids similar in size to Albertosaurus had similar growth rates, although the much larger Tyrannosaurus rex grew almost five times faster (601 kilograms 1325 lb per year) at its peak. The end of the rapid growth phase suggests the onset of sexual maturity in Albertosaurus, although growth continued at a slower rate throughout the animals' lives. Sexual maturation while still actively growing appears to be a shared trait among small and large dinosaurs as well as in large mammals such as humans and elephants. This pattern of relatively early sexual maturation differs strikingly from the pattern in birds, which delay their sexual maturity until after they have finished growing.
A hypothesis of Albertosaurus life history postulates that hatchlings died in large numbers, but have not been preserved in the fossil record due to their small size and fragile construction. After just two years, juveniles were larger than any other predator in the region aside from adult Albertosaurus, and more fleet of foot than most of their prey animals. This resulted in a dramatic decrease in their mortality rate and a corresponding rarity of fossil remains. Mortality rates doubled at age twelve, perhaps the result of the physiological demands of the rapid growth phase, and then doubled again with the onset of sexual maturity between the ages of fourteen and sixteen. This elevated mortality rate continued throughout adulthood, perhaps due to high physiological demands, stress and injuries received during intraspecific competition for mates and resources, and eventually, the ever-increasing effects of senescence. The higher mortality rate in adults may explain their more common preservation. Very large animals were rare because few individuals survived long enough to attain such sizes. High infant mortality rates, followed by reduced mortality among juveniles and a sudden increase in mortality after sexual maturity, with very few animals reaching maximum size, is a pattern observed in many modern large mammals, including elephants, African buffalo, and rhinoceros. The same pattern is also seen in other tyrannosaurids. The comparison with modern animals and other tyrannosaurids lends support to this life history hypothesis, but bias in the fossil record may still play a large role, especially since more than two-thirds of all Albertosaurus specimens are known from one locality.
The near-absence of herbivore remains and the similar state of preservation between the many individuals at the Albertosaurus bonebed quarry led Phil Currie to conclude that the locality was not a predator trap like the La Brea Tar Pits in California, and that all of the preserved animals died at the same time. Currie claims this as evidence of pack behavior. Other scientists are skeptical, observing that the animals may have been driven together by drought, flood or for other reasons.
There is abundant evidence for gregarious behavior among herbivorous dinosaurs, including ceratopsians and hadrosaurs. However, only rarely are so many dinosaurian predators found at the same site. Small theropods like Deinonychus, Coelophysis and Megapnosaurus (Syntarsus) rhodesiensis have been found in aggregations, as have larger predators like Allosaurus and Mapusaurus. There is some evidence of gregarious behavior in other tyrannosaurids as well. Fragmentary remains of smaller individuals were found alongside "Sue," the Tyrannosaurus mounted in the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, and a bonebed in the Two Medicine Formation of Montana contains at least three specimens of Daspletosaurus, preserved alongside several hadrosaurs. These findings may corroborate the evidence for social behavior in Albertosaurus, although some or all of the above localities may represent temporary or unnatural aggregations. Others have speculated that instead of social groups, at least some of these finds represent Komodo dragon-like mobbing of carcasses, where aggressive competition leads to some of the predators being killed and cannibalized.
Currie also offers speculation on the pack-hunting habits of Albertosaurus. The leg proportions of the smaller individuals were comparable to those of Ornithomimids, which were probably among the fastest dinosaurs. Younger Albertosaurus were probably equally fleet-footed, or at least faster than their prey. Currie hypothesized that the younger members of the pack may have been responsible for driving their prey towards the adults, who were larger and more powerful, but also slower. Juveniles may also have had different lifestyles than adults, filling predator niches between the enormous adults and the smaller contemporaneous theropods, the largest of which were two orders of magnitude smaller than adult Albertosaurus in mass. A similar situation is observed in modern Komodo dragons, with hatchlings beginning life as small insectivores before growing to become the dominant predators on their islands. However, as the preservation of behavior in the fossil record is exceedingly rare, these ideas cannot readily be tested.
All identifiable fossils of Albertosaurus sarcophagus are known from the Horseshoe Canyon Formation in Alberta. This geologic formation dates to the early Maastrichtian stage of the Late Cretaceous Period, 73 to 70 Ma (million years ago). Immediately below this formation is the Bearpaw Shale, a marine formation representing a section of the Western Interior Seaway. The seaway was receding as the climate cooled and sea levels subsided towards the end of the Cretaceous, exposing land that had previously been underwater. It was not a smooth process, however, and the seaway would periodically rise to cover parts of the region throughout Horseshoe Canyon times before finally receding altogether in the years after. Due to the changing sea levels, many different environments are represented in the Horseshoe Canyon Formation, including offshore and near-shore marine habitats and coastal habitats like lagoons, estuaries and tidal flats. Numerous coal seams represent ancient peat swamps. Like most of the other vertebrate fossils from the formation, Albertosaurus remains are found in deposits laid down in the deltas and floodplains of large rivers during the later half of Horseshoe Canyon times.
The fauna of the Horseshoe Canyon Formation is well-known, as vertebrate fossils, including those of dinosaurs, are quite common. Sharks, rays, sturgeons, bowfins, gars and the gar-like Aspidorhynchus made up the fish fauna. Mammals included multituberculates and the marsupial Didelphodon. The saltwater plesiosaur Leurospondylus has been found in marine sediments in the Horseshoe Canyon, while freshwater environments were populated by turtles, Champsosaurus, and crocodilians like Leidyosuchus and Stangerochampsa. Dinosaurs dominate the fauna, especially hadrosaurs, which make up half of all dinosaurs known, including the genera Edmontosaurus, Saurolophus and Hypacrosaurus. Ceratopsians and ornithomimids were also very common, together making up another third of the known fauna. Along with much rarer Ankylosaurians and pachycephalosaurs, all of these animals would have been prey for a diverse array of carnivorous theropods, including troodontids, dromaeosaurids, and caenagnathids. Adult Albertosaurus were the apex predators in this environment, with intermediate niches possibly filled by juvenile albertosaurs.