- HB Length: 59-92 cm (23-36″)
- Tail Length: 20-38 cm (8-15″)
- Height: 40-65 cm (16-26″)
- Weight: 7-13.5 kg (15-30 lbs)
- Pop. Trend: Stable
The Serval Leptailurus serval is named from a Portuguese word meaning ‘wolf-deer’. The first impression on seeing these cats is one of extremes – elongated neck, very long legs, and very large ears on a small, delicate skull. It is easy to see the ‘deer’ part of the name.
Their coat is pale yellow, with black markings consisting either of large spots that tend to merge into longitudinal stripes on the neck and back, or numerous small spots which give the animal a ‘speckled’ appearance. The underside is whitish grey or yellowish. Their skull is more elongate than most cats, and has a very high sagittal crest. The Serval’s eyes are yellowish, and the pupils contract into a spindle-shape in bright light. There is a dark stripe above and at the corner of the eye. The hind legs are longer than the front ones. In proportion to the rest of their body, Servals have the longest legs in the cat family. The ears are broad based, high on the head and close together, with black backs and a very distinct white spot. The tail is only about one third of the body length, and has six or seven black rings and a black tip.
Another variation with a more buff coloured coat covered with smaller dots is known as a servaline cat. It has been found that the small spotted form occurs in dense vegetation and secondary forests, while the Serval inhabits grasslands and open savannahs. Melanistic animals also occur in the moist areas of their range.
Optimum habitat for these cats is well-watered, long-grass savannahs, especially those associated with reed beds and other river vegetation. This has resulted in one small, isolated population in northwest Africa that has likely been isolated for over 6,000 years. Their range extends into alpine areas at 3,800 m in Ethiopia and Kenya.
Radio telemetry studies in the Ngorongoro Crater determined that a male had a home range of about 11.6 km2 and that of the females was 9.5 km2. These values are variable depending where the observations are made, as ranges in South Africa are more than twice this size at 15.8-19.8 km2.
Both sexes mark and hold their territories. Home ranges overlap considerably, and males mark their territory very frequently, spraying up to 46 times per hour or 41 times per sq. km. Females mark about half as frequently.
Density in the optimum habitat of the Ngorongoro Crater was estimated at 41 Servals per 100 km2.
Servals are usually crepuscular or nocturnal hunters near humans, but may also hunt in the day during the wet season or if feeding a litter. In the heat of the day, they often rest in abandoned aardvark burrows or under a shady bush. They are excellent climbers, and take to the trees in emergencies. They are solitary and territorial and interactions with same-sex individuals appear tolerant.
Unlike the Cheetah Acinonyx jubatus, Servals do not use their long legs for speedy chases. Instead, the legs lift them up on miniature stilts. They are used in the long grass or reeds as the Serval moves along in a series of high antelope-like leaps, from one to four metres in length and up to two metres high. Small animals that break cover are immediately pounced upon. Like the Caracal Caracal caracal that shares much of their range, Servals use vertical leaps to catch birds and insects in the air, using either a ‘clapping’ of the front paws or a downward blow with one or both paws. At night or in dense grass, they rely on sound alone to pinpoint the target. For this, their large ears are especially useful.
Servals use their long, loose digits to hook rodents out of burrows. They have been observed waiting beside the burrows of animals such as mole rats, and when the rat came near the entrance, they hooked it out and flung it high into the air in a single smooth movement. It has been suggested they locate the mole rats by listening to their underground movements. Servals will also deal with captured prey by raining down blow after blow with their front paws. Their prey is stunned or even killed before they risk biting it.
From over 2,000 observations in 1985, it was calculated that Servals were successful in 50% of their pounces. A female with kittens was even more successful (62%). Annually in the Serengeti, each Serval eats about 4,000 rodents, 260 snakes and 130 birds. The number of insects eaten was not estimated but would probably be much higher than all the rest combined.
Social interactions between the sexes are limited to short periods when they travel and rest together, and breeding is seasonal. As the female comes into heat these periods become more frequent and prolonged. After a 67 – 77 day gestation, one to five, usually two or three, kittens are born in an old burrow, rock crevice, or under a thicket, each weighing about 250 grams. Their eyes open in nine to 12 days, and they take their first solid food at three weeks. Independence is achieved at six to eight months. Females take care of the litters on their own; the male does not take any active role. At around 18 – 24 months, the now sexually mature young are chased out of the mother’s home range and forced to disperse. Longevity in the wild is unknown, but they have lived to 23 years in captivity
Draining of wetlands is the biggest threat to Serval conservation. These areas harbour high rodent densities, and form the core area of Serval home ranges. Of secondary importance is degradation of grasslands through annual burning, followed by over grazing. They will tolerate agricultural areas as long as there is sufficient cover and water.
The main predators on Servals are Leopards Panthera pardus dogs and humans. Their fine markings make them a prime target for poachers, serval skins are also sold as young Leopard or Cheetah, which are much more scarce. This pelt trade appears to be domestic for traditional ceremonial or medicinal purposes.
Some African tribes consider Serval flesh a delicacy. The cats occasionally kill domestic poultry, but the amount of this predation does not appear to be a problem. The Serval’s preference for rodents actually benefits farmers, and they are not as actively hunted as other stock killers. However, indiscriminate poisoning campaigns to decrease rodent numbers also poison the carnivores that prey on them.
Unlike most wild cats, Servals are not endangered and they are classed as Least Concern (2008).
Range Map IUCN Red List (2008)