The word “serval” comes from the 18th-century Portuguese term for ‘lynx’: lobo-cerval. (Smithers; Thiel, 2011)
Back in the day, any spotted wild cat might have been called a lynx, but servals were especially difficult to fit into the cat family tree until genetic testing became possible. At present, per Johnson et al., their formal name is Leptailurus serval.
- Long legs. Servals have the longest legs, in proportion to overall size, of any cat. They don’t use these for running but for hunting in long grass. The hind legs are a bit longer than the forelegs, which also helps servals make amazing leaps — 6 feet or more straight up and up to 13 feet horizontally! Sharp claws also make it possible for the cat to reach deep into a burrow when its prey has gone to ground.
- Huge ears. These “radar dishes” can detect and locate small prey that’s otherwise hidden by vegetation. This hearing apparatus is extensive inside the cat’s head, too, taking up almost a quarter of the skull length! Supersized ears are also an excellent way to radiate body heat in the African summer.
These are from the Cat Specialist Group unless otherwise noted.
Tambako the Jaguar, CC BY-ND 2.0.
- Weight: 15 to 40 pounds.
- Height at the shoulder: Up to 24 inches. (Smithers)
- Body length: 23 to 40 inches.
- Tail length: 8 to 15 inches.
- Coat: Pale yellow to tawny brown with black spots of varying sizes along the sides. Some spots merge into bars, especially on the top of the head and extending onto the shoulders. The short tail has six or seven rings and a black tip. (Smithers; Thiel, 2011) “Servalines” of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo were long considered a separate species, but they are now recognized as servals which spots as small as freckles. All-black (melanistic) servals are fairly common, especially in the highlands of eastern Africa; per Schneider et al., the gene mutation responsible for this hasn’t been identified yet.
- Vocals: Wikipedia reports that servals purr, chirp, hiss, cackle, growl, grunt, and meow.
- Average litter size: 2 to 4 cubs.
Where found in the wild:
Servals are found almost everywhere in sub-Saharan Africa, except the tropical rainforests. A few have been seen in northern Africa, too.
- Habitat: In savannah with plenty of waterways or wetlands, wherever there is some cover. Such places have lots of rodents — the serval’s main prey.
- Range of environments: Servals are fairly common in reed beds along rivers, but they have also been observed in alpine grasslands 12,500 feet up the side of Mount Kilamanjaro as well as in semiarid land and cork oak forests along the Mediterranean coast. Unlike many wild cats, they also appear to do well on farmed land and in pastures.
- Prey base: Macdonald et al. report that 90% of a serval’s diet weighs less than half a pound. This cat preys on a number of species but seems to prefer swamp rats and Nile rates. If no rats are available, a serval does quite well on an average of eight mice per day. In areas without rodents, servals will also go after birds, reptiles, frogs, and insects. Some individual servals, unfortunately, develop a taste for domestic poulty; this is particularly a problem in parts of South Africa, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe, where the cats are considered pests.
- Example of guild: Servals fit into the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem alongside many other carnivores, large and small, including (but not limited to) lions, leopards, cheetahs, caracals, African wild cats, jackals, wild dogs, foxes, weasels, honey badgers, hyenas, and mongooses. (Durant et al.) Caracals and servals have similar hunting styles and go after similar prey; when they overlap, caracals, per Smithers, are better at using semiarid land.
Least concern in most places, but considered to be endangered in northern Africa
Featured image: Tambako the Jaguar, CC BY-ND 2.0
Allen, W. L.; Cuthill, I. C.; Scott-Samuel, N. E.; and Baddeley, R. 2011. Why the leopard got its spots: relating pattern development to ecology in felids. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 278:1373-1380.
Cat Specialist Group. 2019. Serval. http://www.catsg.org/index.php?id=109 Last accessed October 7, 2019.
Durant, S. M.; Craft, M. E.; Foley, C.; Hampson, K.; and others. 2010. Does size matter? An investigation of habitat use across a carnivore assemblage in the Serengeti, Tanzania. Journal of Animal Ecology, 79(5): 1012-1022.
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Johnson, W. E.; Eizirik, E.; Pecon-Slattery, J.; Murphy, W. J.; and others. 2006. The Late Miocene Radiation of Modern Felidae: A Genetic Assessment. Science, 311:73-77.
Keller, E. 2015. Secrets of the world’s 38 species of wild cats. https://blog.nationalgeographic.org/2015/12/24/secrets-of-the-worlds-38-species-of-wild-cats/ Last accessed October 8, 2019.
Kitchener, A. C.; Van Valkenburgh, B.; and Yamaguchi, N. 2010. Felid form and function, in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, ed. Macdonald, D. W., and Loveridge, A. J., 83-106. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kitchener, A. C.; Breitenmoser-Würsten, C.; Eizirik, E.; Gentry, A.; and others. 2017. A revised taxonomy of the Felidae: The final report of the Cat Classification Task Force of the IUCN Cat Specialist Group. https://repository.si.edu/bitstream/handle/10088/32616/A_revised_Felidae_Taxonomy_CatNews.pdf
O’Brien, S. J., and Johnson, W. E. 2007. The evolution of cats. Scientific American. 297 (1):68-75.
Schneider, A.; Henegar, C.; Day, K.; Absher, D.; and others. 2015. Recurrent evolution of melanism in South American felids. PLoS Genetics, 11(2): e1004892.
Smithers, R. H. 1978. The serval Felis serval Schreber, 1776. South African Journal of Wildlife Research-24-month delayed open access, 8(1): 29-37.
Thiel, C. 2011. Ecology and population status of the Serval Leptailurus serval (Schreber, 1776) in Zambia. Ph. D. dissertation.
Thiel, C. 2019. Leptailurus serval (amended version of 2015 assessment). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2019: e.T11638A156536762. https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/11638/156536762
Werdelin, L.; Yamaguchi, N.; Johnson, W. E.; and O’Brien, S. J.. 2010. Phylogeny and evolution of cats (Felidae), in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, eds. Macdonald, D. W., and Loveridge, A. J., 59-82. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wikipedia. 2019. Serval. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serval Last accessed October 7, 2019.