Parasaurolophus (meaning “near crested lizard” in reference to Saurolophus) is a genus of ornithopod dinosaur that lived in what is now North America during the Late Cretaceous Period, about 76.5–74.5 million years ago. It was a herbivore that walked both as a biped and a quadruped. Three species are recognized: P. walkeri (the type species), P. tubicen, and the short-crested P. cyrtocristatus. Remains are known from Alberta (Canada), and New Mexico and Utah (United States). The genus was first described in 1922 by William Parks from a skull and partial skeleton found in Alberta.
Parasaurolophus was a hadrosaurid, part of a diverse family of Cretaceous dinosaurs known for their range of bizarre head adornments. This genus is known for its large, elaborate cranial crest, which at its largest forms a long curved tube projecting upwards and back from the skull. Charonosaurus from China, which may have been its closest relative, had a similar skull and potentially a similar crest. Visual recognition of both species and sex, acoustic resonance, and thermoregulation have been proposed as functional explanations for the crest. It is one of the rarer hadrosaurids, known from only a handful of good specimens.
With its snout bones drawn up into a giant snorkel-like structure, Parasaurolophus was one of the most bizarre of all the hadrosaurs. It lacked a hole in its apex, and because of this it is clear that this bony structure was not used as a breathing apparatus while the animal was swimming or feeding underwater. It seems more likely that it helped Parasaurolophus produce noises for signaling to mates or, if it was colored, for courtship displays. We know from the specimens that have been discovered that soft tissues adorned the bony crest.
Like most dinosaurs, the skeleton of Parasaurolophus is incompletely known. The length of the type specimen of P. walkeri is estimated at 10 m (33 ft), and its weight is estimated at 3.2 tonnes (3.5 short tons). Its skull is about 1.6 m (5 ft 3 in) long, including the crest, whereas the type skull of P. tubicen is over 2 m (6 ft 7 in) long, indicating a larger animal. Its single known forelimb was relatively short for a hadrosaurid, with a short but wide shoulder blade. The thighbone measures 103 cm (41 in) long in P. walkeri and is robust for its length when compared to other hadrosaurids. The upper arm and pelvic bones were also heavily built.
The most noticeable feature was the cranial crest, which protruded from the rear of the head and was made up of the premaxilla and nasal bones. William Parks, who named the genus, hypothesized that a ligament ran from the crest to the notch to support the head, and cited the presence of possibly pathological notch as evidence. Although this idea seems unlikely, Parasaurolophus is sometimes restored with a skin flap from the crest to the neck. The crest was hollow, with distinct tubes leading from each nostril to the end of the crest before reversing direction and heading back down the crest and into the skull. The tubes were simplest in P. walkeri, and more complex in P. tubicen, where some tubes were blind and others met and separated. While P. walkeri and P. tubicen had long crests with only slight curvature, P. cyrtocristatus had a short crest with a more circular profile.
As a hadrosaurid, Parasaurolophus was a large bipedal/quadrupedal herbivore, eating plants with a sophisticated skull that permitted a grinding motion analogous to chewing. Its teeth were continually being replaced; they were packed into dental batteries containing hundreds of teeth, only a relative handful of which were in use at any time. It used its beak to crop plant material, which was held in the jaws by a cheek-like organ. Vegetation could have been taken from the ground up to a height of around 4 m (13 ft). As noted by Bob Bakker, lambeosaurines have narrower beaks than hadrosaurines, implying that Parasaurolophus and its relatives could feed more selectively than their broad-beaked, crestless counterparts.