The serval /ˈsɜrvəl/ (Leptailurus serval) is a medium-sized African wild cat. DNA studies have shown that the serval is closely related to the African golden cat and the caracal.
The serval is a medium-sized cat, measuring 59 to 92 cm (23 to 36 in) in head-body length, with a relatively short, 20 to 45 cm (7.9 to 17.7 in) tail, and a shoulder height of about 54 to 66 cm (21 to 26 in). Weight ranges from about 7 to 12 kg (15 to 26 lb) in females, and from 9 to 18 kg (20 to 40 lb) in males.
It is a strong yet slender animal, with long legs and a fairly short tail. Due to its leg length, it is relatively one of the tallest cats. The head is small in relation to the body, and the tall, oval ears are set close together. The pattern of the fur is variable. Usually, the serval is boldly spotted black on tawny, with two or four stripes from the top of the head down the neck and back, transitioning into spots. The “servaline” form has much smaller, freckled spots, and was once thought to be a separate species. The backs of the ears are black with a distinctive white bar. In addition, melanistic servals are quite common in some parts of the range, giving a similar appearance to the “black panther” (melanistic leopard).
White servals have never been documented in the wild and only five have been documented in captivity. One was born and died at the age of two weeks in Canada in the early 1990s. Three males were born at Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida: Two in 1997 named Kongo and Tonga and one in 1999 named Pharaoh. Another is owned by a family living in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.
Servals have the longest legs of any cat, relative to their body size. Most of this increase in length is due to the greatly elongated metatarsal bones in the feet. The toes are also elongated, and unusually mobile, helping the animal to capture partially concealed prey. Another distinctive feature of the serval is the presence of large ears and auditory bullae in the skull, indicating a particularly acute sense of hearing.
Distribution and habitat
The serval is native to Africa, where it is widely distributed south of the Sahara. It was once also found in Tunisia, and Algeria, but may have been extirpated from Algeria and remains in Tunisia only because of a reintroduction program. In 2013, the serval was spotted and photographed in the Middle Atlas mountain region of Morocco.
Its main habitat is the savanna, although melanistic individuals are more usually found in mountainous areas at elevations up to 3,000 metres (9,800 ft). The serval needs watercourses within its territory, so it does not live in semi-deserts or dry steppes. Servals also avoid dense equatorial jungles, although they may be found along forest fringes. They are able to climb and swim, but seldom do so.
Nineteen subspecies were recognised in Mammal Species of the World, but some authorities treat several of these as synonyms (a few have even treated the serval as monotypic).
Leptailurus serval serval, Cape Province;
Leptailurus serval beirae, Mozambique;
Leptailurus serval brachyurus, West Africa, Sahel to Ethiopia;
Leptailurus serval constantinus, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia;
Leptailurus serval faradjius;
Leptailurus serval ferrarii;
Leptailurus serval hamiltoni, eastern Transvaal;
Leptailurus serval hindei, Tanzania;
Leptailurus serval kempi, Uganda;
Leptailurus serval kivuensis, Congo;
Leptailurus serval lipostictus, northern Angola;
Leptailurus serval lonnbergi, southern Angola;
Leptailurus serval mababiensis, northern Botswana;
Leptailurus serval pantastictus;
Leptailurus serval phillipsi;
Leptailurus serval pococki;
Leptailurus serval robertsi, western Transvaal;
Leptailurus serval tanae, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia;
Leptailurus serval togoensis, Togo and Benin.
Hunting and diet
The serval is mainly a nocturnal hunter to avoid being detected by larger predators. Although it is specialised for hunting rodents, it is an opportunistic predator whose diet also includes birds, hares, hyraxes, reptiles, insects, fish, and frogs. Over 90% of the serval’s prey weighs less than 200 g (7 oz). The serval eats very quickly, sometimes too quickly, causing it to gag and regurgitate due to clogging in the throat. Small prey are devoured whole. With larger prey, small bones are consumed, but organs and intestines are avoided along with fur, feathers, beaks, feet or hooves. The serval uses an effective plucking technique in which it repeatedly tosses captured birds in the air while simultaneously thrashing its head from side-to-side, removing mouthfuls of feathers, which it discards.
As part of its adaptations for hunting in the Savannah, the serval boasts long legs (the longest of all cats, relative to body size) for jumping, which also help it achieve a top speed of 80 km/h (50 mph), and has large ears with acute hearing. Its long legs and neck allow the serval to see over tall grasses, while its ears are used to detect prey, even those burrowing underground. They have been known to dig into burrows in search of underground prey, and to leap 2 to 3 m (7 to 10 ft) into the air to grab birds in flight. While hunting, the serval may pause for up to 15 minutes at a time to listen with eyes closed. Its pounce is a distinctive and precise vertical ‘hop’, which may be an adaptation for capturing flushed birds. It is able to leap up to 3.6 m (12 ft) horizontally from a stationary position, landing precisely on target with sufficient force to stun or kill its prey upon impact. The serval is an efficient killer, catching prey on an average of 50% of attempts, compared to an average of 38% for leopards and 30% for lions.
The serval is extremely intelligent, and demonstrates remarkable problem-solving ability, making it notorious for getting into mischief, as well as easily outwitting its prey, and eluding other predators. The serval often plays with its captured prey for several minutes before consuming it. In most situations, it ferociously defends its food against attempted theft by others. Males can be more aggressive than females.