Conservation Status– Least Concern
The serval has incredibly long legs. These are relative to body size the largest of any cats legs. Their ears are also the largest relative to body size. Their coat is yellow and has a number of patterns on it. 4 main black stripes run from the head to the top of the shoulders. From the shoulders onwards the coat is dotted with spots in a pattern that varies between individuals. Black and white variants of this species also exist. The tail is banded with black rings and ends with a black tip. The backs of their ears are black and a white bar runs through the middle. This colouring helps them to blend in with the grasslands where they live. They also have long necks in comparison to their body size.
From the head to the base of the tail they measure 59-92cm (23-36in) long. The tail is short relative to their body measuring just 20-45cm (7.9-17.7in). Servals stand 54-66cm (21-26in) tall at the shoulder. Males are larger in this species measuring 9-18kg (20-40lb) while females weigh 7-12kg (15-26lb).
Servals live for up to 19 years. The oldest recorded serval ever lived to be 23 years old.
Rodents for the majority of the servals diet. They are carnivorous and take almost any food that comes their way. Their diet includes hyraxes, hares, birds, reptiles, insects, fish and frogs.
Smaller prey items are devoured in their entirety. Servals will remove the feathers, fur, hooves, feet, beaks, organs and intestines of their larger prey items. To remove feathers they throw the bird in the air and then bite feathers off it. Occasionally when swallowing an item it will be too big and they gag it up.
To catch rodents they may reach into their burrows. Their large ears help them to hear the rodents communications. Their long claws assist in hooking prey from the water.
Servals are found South of the Sahara. They do not normally venture to the bottom of Africa either. Some small colonies did exist in Tunisia in Algeria but it is not evident if these populations still exist. Recently they have also been found again in Morocco.
Habitats which the serval live in are always near to a watercourse. They can be found throughout savannahs, mountains, reed patches and occasionally into thick forests. Habitat loss is one of the treats the serval is facing.
The serval maintains a territory which is marks with its scent. The females territory covers about 9.5km2 (3.7sq mi) of land. Males have a larger territory that generally covers that of 2 females.
Servals have no set breeding season. Breeding occurs mostly during the spring months though. It is at this time that local mouse population’s breed meaning food is plentiful. Servals live a solitary lifestyle. When the female is ready to mate she will find a male and court him for a few days.
After 60-67 days 1-4 kittens are born though 2 is most common. These kittens are blind and helpless with a greyish, woolly coat. The mother establishes a den which she may build from tall grass or build in an abandoned burrow.
At 9-13 days old their eyes begin to open. At 4 weeks old they get their first taste for meat. By 4-7moths old they are feeding solely on meat. Males are normally kicked out of home straight after this while some females stay with their mom for 2 years. It can take up to 2 years for them to reach sexual maturity.
Between 1 and 2 years old they will be sexually mature
Servals can purr like most cats. They are also able to hiss, cackle, meow, grunt, cackle and emit a high pitched chirp. They can also communicate through scent marking by spraying urine onto trees and bushes. This shows where their territory and keeps other animals out of it.
They have brilliant jumping abilities. They are able to jump up to 3m (3.3ft) into the air. Their leaps across the ground can cover 4m (13ft).
When hunting the servals tall legs allow them to see over long grasses. They use their ears to hear rodents. Their hearing is so good that they are able to hear rodents which are underground. They will pause and close their eyes in the middle of a hunt to use this skill. Sometimes they will reach into a burrow to grab prey. One of their main hunting strategies is to sit and wait till they hear a prey item.
Servals show nocturnal or crepuscular activity patterns. Which one they follow is normally decided by the activity cycles of their main prey items. By being nocturnal or crepuscular they are also able to avoid the hottest parts of the day.
Servals come under attack from leopards and hyenas occasionally. The biggest threat these species pose is out competing the serval for food. Humans will kill servals to get their fur and some farmers shoot them as they believe they kill their livestock.
When fighting other servals they have a ritualistic behaviour pattern. They will site opposite each other and one will place a paw on the others chest. The other cat will bob his head and potentially bit the paw. Only on rare occasions will this then escalate to a full on fight.
The serval is sometimes referred to as the ‘giraffe cat’ or ‘bush cat.’
It is believed that the name serval was derived from the Portugese word for lynx which is ‘lobo-cerval.’
Ancient Egyptians worshipped servals due to their power and grace.
Servals have been bred with domestic cats to create a breed called the ‘savannah cat.’
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