Leptailurus serval

Quick Bio for Servals:

Status: Least Concern
have from 2-3 cubs, usually 2
Weight: 9-18 kg
Diet: Carnivore

Physical description of Servals

The adult serval is very agile with long legs and large ears. In fact, the ears are the largest of any cat, relative to its size. These are used for detecting prey hiding in the grasses and reeds which make up its primary habitat.

The coat is spotted and striped, often with a white underside and some white on the face. The spots run in distinct lines from the head rearwards and combine to form stripes in places, particularly just behind the head. Those servals that live in forests tend to have smaller markings than the open grassland inhabitants. The tail then has black rings. Melanistic servals are known but are rare.

The portrait of a Serval (Leptailurus serval) in the Masai Mara, Kenya shows us the big ears that make the serval find his prey.
Licensed from Shutterstock
The portrait of a Serval (Leptailurus serval) in the Masai Mara, Kenya shows us the big ears that make the serval find his prey.

Distribution and habitat of Servals

Servals live mainly in Southern Africa; Zimbabwe and Eastern South Africa have the highest populations. Historically, they were found across the continent but are now rare in most areas. Today, there are servals in Northern Tanzania and Kenya and even a few small populations still living in Morocco. Across the rest of Africa, they can be encountered but are rare.

Servals are generally found in grassland areas, but with the added detail that water should be nearby. They spend time hiding in reeds, bamboo and marshes, and to a lesser extent, also forests.

Serval's are one of Africa's lesser known cats. This is only because their size fails to grab the attention the way the big cats do. However they are equally adept at hunting and stalking and are amazing to see in the flesh.
Photo by Adrian O'Brien, owner of ChasingWildlife, check out my print shop.
Serval’s are one of Africa’s lesser known cats. This is only because their size fails to grab the attention the way the big cats do. However they are equally adept at hunting and stalking and are amazing to see in the flesh.

Serval behavior

Servals in Africa operate during the early morning and late afternoon, resting during the middle of the day. They are also active at night but not as much. As they like long grasses and reeds around water, their activity is somewhat less in the drier seasons. They tend to avoid open land or cross it quickly while keeping as low to the ground as possible.

Servals mark their territory with urine, scent glands on their face, and scratching the ground. They do this more often when other servals are in the area.

Most serval interactions outside of mothers caring for kittens are either mating or fighting for territory.

The serval is a usually solitary creature, but they don’t automatically fight when males and females come in contact, sometimes staying together and even hunting together briefly. Otherwise, servals stick to themselves.

Captured in the midst of action, a Serval (Leptailurus serval) is perfectly poised for the pounce, its focus locked on an unsuspecting rodent. This image exemplifies the precise and agile hunting technique characteristic of this species.
Licensed from Shutterstock
Captured in the midst of action, a Serval (Leptailurus serval) is perfectly poised for the pounce, its focus locked on an unsuspecting rodent. This image exemplifies the precise and agile hunting technique characteristic of this species.

What do Servals eat?

Most often, servals hunt at dusk and dawn, but when they are near human settlements, the cat is more nocturnal in behavior. Typically, they hunt small mammals, though sometimes birds are hunted as well. A success rate of 50% puts them among the more successful hunters in the cat family, but this rate varies among individual territories and even the time of day. Evenings tend to be more successful.

Hunting is done by listening and then pouncing on prey, capturing it with the front paws. Often, the listening is done along paths where the cat’s own footfall is quieter and the prey easier to pinpoint. With their large ears, they figure out precisely where the prey is, stalk towards it, and then pounce, jumping up to 4 m to land precisely on the poor creature who serves for dinner. They can jump over 1 m upwards to catch birds. As spectacular as this is, seen regularly on BBC documentaries, it is actually a minor part of the hunting strategy. Caracals, on the other hand, use this skill more regularly.

All kittens play with their food as they learn to hunt. Serval kittens are weaned before six months and, from then on, start to play with the small prey the mother catches when they follow her on her hunt. Interestingly, this never stops. While it is not necessarily common, adult servals have been spotted catching, releasing and recatching their prey. As this play in adults is no longer learning, is it practicing or entertainment?

A serval (Leptailurus serval) pouncing on its prey. This is the typical way a serval will catch its prey, which is generally small mammals, which they tend to find with their exceptional sense of hearing.
Licensed from Shutterstock
A serval (Leptailurus serval) pouncing on its prey. This is the typical way a serval will catch its prey, which is generally small mammals, which they tend to find with their exceptional sense of hearing.

Mating and Parental care of Servals

Servals are solitary. They only come together for breeding and when mothers are rearing offspring. Though solitary, their territories overlap in the case of males and females. As males mate with multiple females, having a territory that overlaps multiple females makes sense. Breeding can occur year-round, and it is most common just before the local wet season (standard breeding time for a lot of animals) so as to provide enough prey for the female to hunt easily while bringing up kittens.

Kittens stay with their mother for a year before leaving to find their own new territory. Males do not help in raising the young. This puts pressure on the female to find food for multiple mouths, generally two or three kittens. Serval Kittens develop quickly at the beginning and are weaned by six months. During this period and beyond, the female must hunt more than usual to feed the young and then teach them to hunt for themselves. Kittens are generally able to fend for themselves after a year. It takes males a bit longer than simple independence to establish their own permanent territory.

A magnificent serval mom (Leptailurus serval) carries her baby in her teeth, as is typical of all feline mothers.
Licensed from Shutterstock
A magnificent serval mom (Leptailurus serval) carries her baby in her teeth, as is typical of all feline mothers.

Who preys on Servals?

Servals are apex predators. Only Humans prey on them. However, they do compete with leopards for territory despite generally preying on smaller animals than the leopard. The serval is normally the one who cedes ground.

How long do Servals live?

Typically, servals live to 10 years in the wild. Older ages have been guessed at for individuals, and in captivity, servals have lived to 20 years.

Impact of Servals on the human economy

Unfortunately, servals are very pretty, and their furs are in demand. This is not as common as it once was; tribal leaders used to wear them regularly. Today, they are still considered an exotic pet and are traded as such. Sadly, there are still states in the US that permit private ownership of these wild cats for pets.

Like other small cats, servals don’t generally prey on domestic animals. However, sometimes they will take advantage of the situation and attack livestock, mostly smaller animals and poultry.

The Serval (Letailurus serval) is often seen in the Masai Mara, Kenya. It isn't a common species but a few days on safari and you have a decent chance of finding on in the long grass. They are also commonly found in South Africa and Zimbabwe.
Licensed from Shutterstock
The Serval (Letailurus serval) is often seen in the Masai Mara, Kenya. It isn’t a common species but a few days on safari and you have a decent chance of finding on in the long grass. They are also commonly found in South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Conservation status and human impact on Servals

Like most cats, human encroachment has reduced the preferred habitat of servals. This has led to some hunting of domesticated animals, such as poultry, but the numbers are insignificant. Despite this, they are often persecuted by farmers who believe it happens more frequently than it does.

Serval in French, German, Spanish ...

Latin Name
Leptailurus serval
French Names
Serval
German Names
Serval
Spanish Names
Serval, Gato Serval
Swahili Names
Mondo

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