The serval (Leptailurus serval)

The serval (Leptailurus serval) is a slender long-legged medium-sized cat.

The serval has the longest legs and biggest ears among felines (relative to its body size). The serval has white spots - "false eyes" - on the back of each ear, which help mislead predators and also help cubs follow their mother through dense forest's undergrowth. Its head is miniature and the tail is relatively short. According to a number of morphological features, the serval is considered a close relative of lynx and caracal, although it mostly resembles a cheetah by its colour — dark spots and stripes on the yellow-grey coat. Its chest, belly and snout is white.

Ears are black on the outside with yellow or white transverse spots. There are differences in colouring of various geographical races of the servals. The servals living in the steppe and sparsely forested areas can be distinguished by large spots on a light background. The forest servals are darker, more squatty and have smaller spots; they were formerly isolated in separate species of "Felis Serval" or Servalina.

The transition between these two types is smooth, especially where their habitats are located side by side with each other. Thus, cats with large spots on a dark coat were seen in Uganda and Angola, and animals with small spots on a light yellow coat were caught in Guinea, Togo and Ethiopia. The black servals can be met in the mountainous regions of Kenya — they make up half of the population there. The white servals with silver grey spots found only in captivity. The servals are distributed almost throughout the entire Africa, excluding the Sahara, equatorial zone forests and southern edge of the continent (Cape Province). These animals is now extremely rare north of the Sahara (Algeria, Morocco), but still quite common in East and West Africa. The servals inhabit open areas with shrub and grassy thickets, usually settling near water. They avoid the deserts, dry plains and rainforests, preferring the forest edges.

The servals are mainly crepuscular animals - the peak of their hunting activity is at 4-5 a.m. and 10-11 p.m. Their main preys are rodents, hares, as well as flamingos, guinea fowls and other birds. Large ears and well-developed hearing help them hunt down rodents and lizards, and long limbs facilitate their moving in tall grass of savannahs and help them watch over it. Despite the long strong legs, the serval cannot stalk prey for long.

Its hunting method is similar to the hunting tactics of another feline — the caracal. The serval hunts by sneaking in tall grass; it is capable of performing large vertical jumps (up to 3 m height), knocking flying birds. The serval often digs out rodents by digging their holes and climbs the trees for tree hyraxes. It can swim. Servals are very efficient hunters - on average, 59% of their attacks end up capturing prey. Servals lead a solitary lifestyle. Aggressive encounters among them are rare. In case of danger, they prefer to hide or flee, making unexpected leaps or suddenly changing the direction of running, sometimes even climbing on trees. The reproduction of servals is not fixed to any specific time of year. But in the southern parts of the home range, cubs appear mainly in February-April.

During oestrus, the female and the male hunt for a few days and rest together. The gestation period is 65-75 days. Kittens are born in the abandoned burrows of aardvarks or nests in the grass; the average litter is 2-3 kittens. Their mother feeds them with milk for 5 to 7½ months. At around one year old, they leave their mother and find their own territory.

Young females live with their mothers longer then young males. The serval reaches puberty at the age of 18-24 months. Servals are target species, because their hides are used for making fur products. They are also popular in some parts of Africa because of their meat. They are also exterminated due to attacks on poultry.

As a consequence, the number of servals is noticeably dropped in densely populated areas of Africa. The Northern serval subspecies are listed in the Red Book, IUCN Group 2, as "endangered species threatened with extinction". Servals can be tamed quite easily and kept in captivity as pets. Serval males are able to mate with regular household cats, giving birth to Savannah hybrids. There are also hybrids of servals and caracals — servicals and caravals.

Serval characteristics

  • Size: body length 0.9 -1.35 m, tail 30-45 cm, shoulder height 40-65 cm.
  • Weight: male 13-18 kg; female 10-14 kg.
  • Lifespan: up to 18 years in nature, up to 25 years in captivity.
  • Breeding season: throughout the year, with the peak in June-October.
  • Puberty: females after 18 months, males after 24 months.
  • Pregnancy: lasts 65-75 days. Litter: 2-3 kittens. Newborns have soft rare fur. They open their eyes after 15-18 days. Lactation lasts 5 up to 7½ months.

Serval subspecies:

  • Leptailurus serval serval, from Tanzania to the Cape Province (RSA)
  • Leptailurus serval beirae, Mozambique
  • Leptailurus serval brachyura, West Africa, Sahel, Ethiopia
  • Leptailurus serval constantina, Northern Africa (endangered)
  • Leptailurus serval hamiltoni, Eastern Transvaal
  • Leptailurus serval hindeio, Tanzania
  • Leptailurus serval ingridi, Namibia, Southern Botswana, Zimbabwe
  • Leptailurus serval kempi, Uganda, Leptailurus serval kivuensis, Congo
  • Leptailurus serval liposticta, Northern Angola
  • Leptailurus serval lonnbergi, Southern Angola
  • Leptailurus serval mababiensis, Northern Botswana
  • Leptailurus serval robertsi, Western Transvaal (RSA)
  • Leptailurus serval togoensis, Togo, Benin

The servals' habitat is

  • Africa

Scientific classification of the serval

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Mammalia
  • Order: Carnivora
  • Family: Felidae
  • Subfamily: Felinae
  • Genus: Servals (Leptailurus Severtzov, 1858)
  • Species: Serval.

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