- Kingdom: Animalia
- Phylum: Chordata
- Class: Mammalia
- Order: Carnivora
- Family: Felidae
- Subfamily: Felinae
- Genus: Leptailurus
- Species: serval
Scientific Name: Leptailurus serval
IUCN Red List Status and Population
Least Concern (Theil 2015)
Weight: 30-40 pounds
Length: 23-36 inches long, 16-26 inches tall, with the largest leg to body size ratio of any feline
Lifespan: ~ 10 years in the wild, ~ 22 years in captivity
Gestation Period: 73 days
Litter size: 1-5 kittens (2 average)
Weight: 8.5-9 oz, eyes open 9-12 days, the first solid meal at 3 weeks, kittens double in size after 11 days
Servals are polygynous (many females to a single male), and males’ territories overlap with many females for optimal reproductive success. Mating typically occurs in the spring although they can breed year-round. Kittens become independent from their mothers between 6-8 months of age, and attain sexual maturity between 18-24 months old. Once they reach this age, the mother will force them out of her territory for them to establish their own home range (Big Cat Rescue 2015).
Mothers will raise their kittens in dens, varying from dense shrubbery to holes underneath rocks, or abandoned burrows (Canniff 2011). Males provide no parental care, and it up to the female to hunt for herself and her young.
About: The name serval was derived from a Portuguese word meaning “wolf-deer” due to its elongated features. They have extremely long legs, ears, and necks with a very small skull. Their legs are the longest of any cat relative to their body size. Their legs are used in the long grass to leap high distances (approximately 3.5 feet high and 10 feet long). Small animals are easily pounced on from a distance. They catch flying prey by “clapping” their front paws in the air on their prey. They heavily rely on sound to pinpoint their next meal. They are the most successful hunters of most cat species, having a 50% success rate. Servals prey upon small mammals, insects, frogs, lizards, and birds.
Kittens are taught to hunt by adults, who allow them to “play with their food” (Canniff 2011). The prey item is tossed in the air or allowed to scurry away while the youngsters practice. These hunting skills are important to learn to ensure the adolescences survival once on their own.
Natural Behaviors: Servals are solitary animals, and only come together to breed. Both males and females maintain their own territory. They mark their territories by spraying frequently, about 46 times every hour, by rubbing their faces with scent gland around their territory, or by scratching the ground and trees. They are mostly crepuscular hunters (dawn and dusk), although in under human populated areas may hunt during the day to feed a litter of kittens (Canniff 2011). During the day, these cats rest in abandoned burrows or underneath a shady bush to conserve energy for the next hunt. Servals are nimble climbers and seek refuge from danger up a tree.
Habitat Types: temperate and tropical forests with lots of water, savannah/grasslands (not found in rainforests or true deserts)
Habitat Range: Males: 11.6km^2 (4.5mi^2) Females: 9.5km^2 (3.66mi^2) depending on prey, natural resources, and cover. Female and male territories do not overlap (Canniff 2011).
Historic Home Range: Well distributed throughout Africa
Current Home Ranges: sub-Saharan Africa, small populations in south-west Africa
Major threats to the African serval include habitat loss and degradation due to population growth in their native homelands. They depend on high rodent densities of wetlands and grasslands, which are being over-grazed by livestock. Draining of wetlands is the biggest threat to these small cats, according to the International Society for Endangered Cats (ISEC), Canada. These cats are resilient and can tolerate agricultural areas if given sufficient cover and water (Serval 2015). Servals can also be killed by other large predators such as leopards, hyenas and lions.
The exotic animal trade is also a huge threat to the species, being captured and sold for commercial export to different countries. Serval pelts are also used and traded in large quantities in some countries, according to the IUCN Red List of Threated Species (Theil 2015). These places include Senegal, Gambia, and Benin, where the pelts are being exported to North Africa. Serval pelts are often used as substitutes for leopard or cheetah skins in traditional clothing as well as the exotic fur trade. Servals are also persecuted by local people when they prey upon poultry or small livestock. Although servals tend to prey upon rodents which help local farmers to decrease rodent populations, indiscriminate poison is extremely harmful to the carnivores that prey on the rodents consuming the poison.
Servals are becoming habituated (accustom to people), and are more at risk due to motor vehicles, tourism, and farming (Canniff 2011). Increasing human population and agricultural development are causing much more human-wildlife conflict. Although humans have tried to release captive-bred servals back into the wild, they are used to humans and usually become a nuisance.
Why Servals Matter
Servals are tertiary consumers and mesopredators and act as an important part of the food web in the African Savannah. Mesopredators are within the middle of the food chain. They control rodent populations, which lessen the chance of disease spreading to humans, as well as protecting crops from being overgrazed by small mammals and prey items. These predators play a vital role in the food chain and balance the unique ecosystem of their home-ranges. *excerpt on the food chain, mesopredator release, negative effects on ecosystems.
Servals encourage ecotourism by their beauty and hunting style. Their body parts are worn by native chiefs in native African tribes, and their body parts are of importance in traditional ceremonies.
The African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) has been working with communities to solve the human-wildlife conflict and teach local African people how to become nature stewards and protect their wild homelands (“Serval”). By incentivizing conservation in human populated areas, AWF has provided locals with the tools necessary to enhance their agricultural techniques, economic security, and sustainable practices that also benefit the wildlife and natural ecosystems surrounding them. They recruit them as wildlife scouts and provide them with the tools such as monitoring devices, vehicles, and GPS systems to employ local communities and create greater protection for wildlife and humans.
Since servals occur in protected areas across their home range, although further investigation of their home range is crucial for conservation. The IUCN declares that the species is in dire need of an updated action plan for conservation, as it is an umbrella species for the ecosystem in which it resides (Thiel 2015). Servals are also an indicator for the endangered humid savannah biotope, and protecting the species will conserve wetlands as well (Thiel 2015).
- Canniff, T. 2011. “Leptailurus serval” (On-line), Animal Diversity http://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Leptailurus_serval/
- “Serval”. African Wildlife Foundation. http://www.awf.org/wildlife-conservation/serval
- “Serval”. International Society for Endangered Cats (Canada, 2013). https://wildcatconservation.org/wild-cats/africa/serval/
- “Serval Facts”. Big Cat Rescue, 2015. https://bigcatrescue.org/serval-facts/
- Thiel, C. 2015. Leptailurus serval. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015: e.T11638A50654625. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2015-2.RLTS.T11638A50654625.en.