Leptailurus serval (formerly classified as Felis serval) is a member of the family Felidae. African servals, originally found throughout Africa, now predominantly reside in southern Africa, especially in Zimbabwe and the province of Natal. Small populations are located in the Atlas Mountains, where distributions were greater prior to 1980. African servals have also been found in Algeria, Morocco, Ethiopia, and south of the Sahara. Due to relocation efforts, members of this species can now be found in northern Tanzania.
Biogeographic Regions: ethiopian (Native )
Adult African servals are slender, agile, and approximately 60 cm in length from shoulder to tail. Males weigh about 9 to 18 kg and females 9 to 13 kg. Their legs and ears are long and considered the largest in the cat family relative to their size. African servals have a coat with copper hue. Their ventral side and some of their facial features are white. They have black spots and stripes, which vary among each individual in size and placement. Individuals that originated from grasslands tend to have larger spots than those found in forests. Markings run from the top of the head between the ears and continue down the back breaking into four distinct lines. Upon reaching the shoulders, the lines break and scatter into spots along the same path of the stripes. Eventually reaching the rear of the animal, the spots elongate perpendicularly and merge to form the rings of the tail. The tip of the tail is black. The back of the ears are black with a white line between them. Occasionally, melanistic servals have been observed.
Range mass: 9 to 18 kg.
Average mass: 14 kg.
Average length: 60 cm.
Sexual Dimorphism: sexes alike; male larger
Other Physical Features: endothermic ; bilateral symmetry
Average basal metabolic rate: 1.44 W.
Kalahari Acacia-baikaiea Woodlands
The Tsodilo thick-toed gecko (Pachydactylus tsodiloensis), is a strict endemic of the Kalahari acacia-baikaiea woodlands ecoregion. It is found only on the Tsodilo Hills in the northwest of the ecoregion. This Kalahari woodland supports a rich and diverse fauna, including a variety of ungulates and a number of threatened large mammalian taxa. The climate of the ecoregion is semi-arid, with droughts occurring on a seven-year cycle. To the south of the ecoregion, where the climate becomes more arid, the sandveld vegetation grades into the sparse, shrubby, Acacia-dominated Kalahari Xeric savanna ecoregion. To the north, the climate becomes moister and the vegetation grades into a mesic savanna or woodland dominated by Baikiaea plurijuga, the Zambezian Baikiaea woodland ecoregion.
The ecoregion supports many of the charismatic large mammals associated with African savannas. While these species are not endemic, several are listed as threatened by the IUCN, including the critically endangered Black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis), and two species listed as vulnerable, the Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) and the Brown hyena (Hyaena brunnea). Predators range from smaller species such as African civet (Civettictis civetta) and Serval (Felis serval) to Lion (Panthera leo), Leopard (Panthera pardus), Painted hunting dog (Lycaon pictus) and both Brown and Spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta). Many of the large herbivores found in the ecoregion undertake seasonal migrations, especially during droughts. Blue wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus), eland (Taurotragus oryx), zebra (Equus burchelli), buffalo (Syncerus caffer), and Hartebeest (Alcelaphus buselaphus) all migrate within this ecoregion.
The ecoregion has a rich and colourful avian fauna, with 468 species recorded to date. Bradfield’s hornbill (Tockus bradfieldi) is one of only two species considered near-endemic to this ecoregion, found in the north of the ecoregion, the Okavango Alluvial Fan, and northwest Zimbabwe, where it is utilises Baikiaea and mixed Mopane woodlands. The Blackfaced babbler (Turdoides melanops) is the other near-endemic, found in the area west of the Okavango Alluvial Fan and extending into Namibia. It inhabits the understory of broad-leafed and mixed Acacia woodlands. The lappet-faced vulture (Torgos tracheliotus), is considered vulnerable and is found throughout the ecoregion.
There are 31 amphibian and 92 reptile species found within the ecoregion. None of the amphibian species is endemic or near-endemic, but six of the reptile species are near-endemic, and one, the Tsodilo thick-toed gecko (Pachydactylus tsodiloensis), is a strict endemic. It is found only on the Tsodilo Hills in the northwest of the ecoregion. Near-endemic reptilians include Kalahari purple-glossed snake (Amblyodipsas ventrimaculata), Kalahari ground gecko (Colopus wahlbergii), and Leonard’s spade-snouted worm lizard (Monopeltis leonhardi).
- A. Campbell. 1990. The nature of Botswana: a guide to conservation and development. IUCN, Harare, Zimbabwe. ISBN: 2880329345
- World Wildlife Fund & C.MIchael Hogan. 2015. Kalahari Acacia-baikaiea Woodlands. Encyclopedia of Earth. National Council for Science and Environment. Washington DC
African servals are most commonly found in reed beds and grasslands, which primarily consist of Themeda triandra. They also spend time in forest brush, bamboo thickets, marshes, and streams within their home range. The average annual temperature within the geographic range of African servals is 13.7 °C and the average rainfall 826 mm/year. Members of this species in the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania are found at elevations between 1400 and 2200 m where winters are mild and there is occasional snowfall.
Range elevation: 1400 to 2200 m.
Habitat Regions: temperate ; tropical ; terrestrial
Terrestrial Biomes: savanna or grassland
Habitat and Ecology
African servals are crepuscular, hunting several times a night and early morning. If human habitation is close, servals may become nocturnal when hunting. Their diet consists of 93.5% small mammals (rats, mice, and shrews) and 5% birds with the remainder including occasional insects, frogs, lizards, and very rarely carrion. They have a hunting success rate of 48%, higher than other members of the family Felidae. This success rate was observed in successfully reintroduced and wild servals. Hunts early in the morning have a lower rate of success yet have higher yield of prey (about 10) than in the evening (about 6).
To begin hunting, Afircan servals first scan the surrounding area. Ideal hunting spots are located along roads or trails, where there is good audibility on all sides and less noise is made when walking. Along their survey, African servals periodically stop and remain motionless for as long as 15 min. If a meal is detected, their ears prick up and rotate to pinpoint their prey. Once the location of prey has been established, servals slink forward. They pounce a distance of 1 to 4 m, with their front feet landing atop their prey. If prey is heard beneath the soil, African servals rummage, dig, and sniff to either reach or flush the critter out. African servals have more difficulty catching birds and insects. They have been recorded jumping as high as 1.5 m attempting to catch lesser flamingos, spoonbills, ducks, and other waterfowl. These animals are plucked before consumption.
Serval kittens and sometimes adult African servals “play with” their food if prey are not immediately killed. Rats, mice, and birds are tossed in the air while snakes are allowed to scurry some distance away before caught again and bitten. Prey are generally eaten where they caught or along the roadside when undisturbed. Kittens suckle from their mother until weaned at about five months, when they attempt to venture out with her to hunt.
Animal Foods: birds; mammals; amphibians; reptiles; carrion ; insects
Primary Diet: carnivore (Eats terrestrial vertebrates)
As a predator, African servals may limit growth of their prey (small mammals). Fecal matter deposition and meal remains may also act as fertilizer. African servals are host to a parasitic protozoan Toxoplasma gondii, and antibodies to the parasite have been found in the blood of servals.
- Protozoan Toxoplasma gondii
African servals have no major predators other than humans. Leopards and hyenas are the most probable competitors for food and territory. When African servals discover they are close to an individual of a rival species, they run away in confusing darting leaps.
- humans Homo sapiens
Known prey organisms
This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
Life History and Behavior
Being a solitary animal, African servals only interact with other members of their species when mating, caring for young, or fighting for territory. Of all the sightings in Geertsema's (1984) 4-year study, 7.8% of observations were of social interactions, most of which was parental care. Chemical communication of adults is limited to scent markings emitted from urine and glands in the cheeks. The highest recorded number of markings was by a male when he was following a female, in which he marked 566 times in a 4 hour period.
Communication Channels: visual ; tactile ; chemical
Other Communication Modes: pheromones ; scent marks
Perception Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical
African servals are estimated to live 10 years in the wild. The longest lived African serval in the wild was estimated to be 23 years of age. Servals in captivity live on average 22.4 years. One female at the Basel Zoo in Switzerland had her last litter at age 14 and lived 19.5 years.
Status: wild: 23 years.
Status: captivity: 22.4 years.
Status: wild: 10 years.
Status: wild: 23.0 years.
Status: captivity: 19.8 years.
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
African servals are solitary animals except when breeding. They are polygynous, and the territories of males overlap with those of as many females as possible for optimal reproduction. Although there is no set breeding interval, mating occurs more often in the spring. A female nearly ready to breed will hunt and court the male over several days, just before coming into oestrus. Oestrus can last as little as 1 day.
Mating System: polygynous
After a gestation period of 10 to 11 weeks, female African servals give birth to 2 to 3 kittens. These young, about 250 g at birth, double in size in their first 11 days. They are weaned in 5 months, and their permanent canines are developed by 6 months of age. Young African servals stay for up to a year with their mother until kicked out to find their own territory. Males take 1 to 2 years to establish a new territory. Sexual maturity occurs about the time kittens are independent, between 18 and 24 months.
Breeding interval: African servals have no set breeding season, though increased mating occurs in spring.
Range number of offspring: 2 to 3.
Range gestation period: 65 to 75 days.
Range weaning age: 3 to 5 months.
Range time to independence: 1 to 1.5 years.
Key Reproductive Features: year-round breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; fertilization ; viviparous
Average birth mass: 263 g.
Average number of offspring: 2.5.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
Sex: female: 821 days.
After mating, female African servals likely look for suitable dens in which to raise their young. Dens vary from dense shrubs to holes under rocks or abandoned burrows. The behavior of a mother changes to accommodate her young as she must forage for them as well as herself. Constantly hunting, she must deter her kittens from following her. In the late afternoons she rests before hunting for the next meal. Males provide no parental care for the kittens.
Parental Investment: female parental care ; pre-hatching/birth (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female); pre-weaning/fledging (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female); pre-independence (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female)
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Felis serval
Public Records: 0
Specimens with Barcodes: 2
Species With Barcodes: 1
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Leptailurus serval
Public Records: 0
Specimens with Barcodes: 1
Species With Barcodes: 1
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Caracal serval
Public Records: 0
Specimens with Barcodes: 4
Species With Barcodes: 1
Increasing human populations and agricutural developement have reduced habitat for both African servals and their prey. This may lead to hunting of livestock, as it is an easy and highly nutritious meal. Though the impact of servals on agriculture is minimal, they are regularly shot on site by farmers. Reintroduction of captive-raised servals has been attempted, but there has been difficulty introducing them too close to human habitations. Studies have used radio transmitters to show that most effective releases are at least 10 km from humans at a site with sufficient prey. Although African servals are listed as a species of least concern by the IUCN, the subspecies Leptailurus serval constantina is listed as endangered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
US Federal List: endangered
CITES: no special status
State of Michigan List: no special status
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: least concern
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
The isolated population along the Mediterranean coast, where it is known to occur only in Morocco (Cuzin 2003), possibly in Algeria (K. de Smet pers. comm.), and has been reintroduced (from East African stock) in Tunisia, is classified regionally as Critically Endangered (C2a(1)). There are fewer than 250 mature individuals, each subpopulation is smaller than 50 and completely isolated (from each other and from sub-Saharan African populations).
- 2002Least Concern
International legal commercial trade is generally declining (Nowell and Jackson 1996), although skins are still traded in large quantities in some countries, such as Senegal, Gambia and Benin (O. Burnham and I. Di Silvestre, in Hunter and Bowland in press), and exported to North Africa (K. de Smet and F. Cuzin pers. comm. 2007). Serval pelts seen in trade in Morocco could come from elsewhere, or could indicate the species continued existence in that country (Arce and Prunier 2006). Trade in West Africa appears to be primarily for ceremonial or medicinal purposes. For example, they are highly valued for traditional medicine in Nigeria, where, among markets surveyed in five south-west Nigerian towns in 1994, servals were the second most commonly offered mammalian species (Sodeinde and Soewu 1999 in Hunter and Bowland in press).
Although serval very rarely prey upon livestock (and indeed may even be beneficial to crop farmers due to their predilection for rodents), in rural areas throughout Africa, they are sometimes persecuted for taking poultry and indiscriminate predator control methods practiced by pastoralists frequently kill them (Hunter and Bowland pers. comm.).
Servals occur in a number of protected areas across their range, including: El Kala N.P. (Algeria), Feidja N.P. (Tunisia), Ifrane N.P. (Morocco), Comoé N.P. (Côte d’Ivoire), WAPO complex (Burkina Faso, Benin, Niger, Togo), Zakouma N.P. (Chad), Simien and Bale Mountains National Parks (Ethiopia), Odzala N.P. (Congo Republic), Virunga N.P. (DR Congo), Queen Elizabeth N.P. (Uganda), Aberdare Mountains N.P. (Kenya), Serengeti and Selous National Parks (Tanzania), Moremi G.R. and Chobe N.P. (Botswana), and Kruger N.P. and Ukhahlamba-Drakensberg Park (South Africa) (Hunter and Bowland in press). Odzala N.P. in Congo Republic could be a key site for protecting serval as it is the only currently known protected population in the Gabon-Congolian savanna region, which are isolated from the Miombo woodlands south of the Congo River (P. Henschel pers. comm.).
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
African servals have become accustomed to people and motor vehicles due to tourism, farming, and relocation. Servals prey on rare occasions on dogs and livestock (poultry).
African servals are part of the exotic pet trade. One domestic cat breed, savannah, is a mix between tabbys and servals. The pelt of servals is valuable and used to make mantles worn by chiefs in native tribes. Servals may also encourage ecotourism, which is common in Tanzania where most servals reside.
Positive Impacts: pet trade ; body parts are source of valuable material; ecotourism ; research and education
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.
- 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 specialized 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 savannas, 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.
Like most cats, the serval is a solitary, nocturnal animal. It is known to travel as much as 3 to 4 km (1.9 to 2.5 mi) each night in search of food. The female defends home ranges of 9.5 to 19.8 km2 (3.7 to 7.6 sq mi), depending on local prey availability, while the male defends larger territories of 11.6 to 31.5 km2 (4.5 to 12.2 sq mi). Both sexes mark their territory by spraying urine onto prominent objects such as bushes, or, less frequently, by scraping fresh urine into the ground with their claws. Threat displays between hostile servals are often highly exaggerated, with the animals flattening their ears and arching their backs, baring their teeth, and nodding their heads vigorously. In direct confrontation, they lash out with their long fore legs and make sharp barking sounds and loud growls.
Reproduction and life history
Oestrus in the serval lasts for up to four days, and is typically timed so the kittens are born shortly before the peak breeding period of local rodent populations. A serval is able to give birth to multiple litters throughout the year, but commonly does so only if the earlier litters die shortly after birth. Gestation lasts from 66 to 77 days and commonly results in the birth of two kittens, although sometimes as few as one or as many as four have been recorded.
The kittens are born in dense vegetation or sheltered locations such as abandoned aardvark burrows. If such an ideal location is not available, a place beneath a shrub may be sufficient. The kittens weigh around 250 g (8.8 oz) at birth, and are initially blind and helpless, with a coat of greyish woolly hair. They open their eyes at 9 to 13 days of age, and begin to take solid food after around a month. At around six months, they acquire their permanent canine teeth and begin to hunt for themselves; they leave their mother at about 12 months of age. They may reach sexual maturity from 12 to 25 months of age.
Life expectancy is about 10 years in the wild, and up to 20 years in captivity. The longest recorded life of an African serval in the wild is 23 years of age. In captivity, average lifespan is 22.4 years.
Servals have dwindled in numbers due to human population taking over their habitat and hunting them for their pelts. The serval is sometimes preyed upon by the leopard and other large cats. It is listed in CITES Appendix 2, indicating it is "not necessarily now threatened with extinction, but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled." It is still common—locally even expanding—in much of sub-Saharan Africa, but is extinct in the Cape Province in South Africa. Private game reserves in the Eastern Cape have begun reintroducing the species in the hopes of contributing to the eventual re-establishment of these wild cats in the region. North of the Sahara, it occurs in only Morocco and Algeria, but has now possibly disappeared from the latter country and the subspecies from this region (L. s. constantina) is considered endangered under the US Endangered Species Act. It formerly occurred naturally in Tunisia, but now only through a reintroduction program based on servals from East Africa.
Heraldry and literature
The serval (Italian gattopardo) was the symbol of the Tomasi family, princes of Lampedusa, whose best-known member was Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, author of one of the most famous Italian novels of the 20th century, Il Gattopardo. Opération Serval, a 2013 French military operation in the Northern Mali conflict, was named after the African cat.
- Savannah cat - a hybridisation of a house cat and a serval
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- Tonga. Big Cat Rescue. Retrieved on 2012-07-03.
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- Première nationale: un serval photographié dans le moyen Atlas
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- CITES Appendices. cites.org
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