Serval, Leptailurus serval
The serval is well-adapted to hunting small prey in long grass; its legs are slim and relatively long, and shoulder height is almost two feet (.6 m). The neck is also elongated with a small head framed by disproportionately large ears. The auditory bulla, a hollow structure that houses the inner ear, is also well-developed and makes up about 22% of the skull length. Males average 9 to 18 lb (4 to 8.1 kg) and females are 9 to 13 lb (4 to 5.8 kg).
Servals are pale yellow in color and marked with solid black spots along the side and bars on the neck and shoulders. A number of subspecies have been named solely on the basis of pattern mutation of small speckled spots, these “servaline” servals being considered a separate species or subspecies in early literature. While this pattern is more common in the West African population, this pattern is also seen in other regions and is now considered to merely be a color morph. Melanistic individuals have also been widely reported.
Servals are found throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa except the central African rainforest, the deserts and plains of Namibia, and most of Botswana and South Africa. Although formerly present in the Cape Province and the coastal belt of South Africa, that population appears to have been extirpated. Overall the serval’s distribution is largely intact, shrinking only in the extreme north and south due to habitat loss in the wake of changes in land use and increased urbanization. In North Africa, they may well have never been numerous due to limited water sources that in turn were focal points for human use and settlement.
The serval prefers well-watered long-grass savannahs, and is particularly associated with reed beds and other riparian vegetative types. This association strongly localizes their distribution over wide areas, but does allow them to penetrate dense forests along waterways and through grassy patches. They also range up into alpine grasslands, up to 3,200 m in Ethiopia and 3,800 m in Kenya. Servals are highly tolerant of agricultural development that in turn fosters increased rodent densities as long as sufficient water and shelter are available. Degradation of forest to savannah in West Africa probably favors the species.
Servals feed primarily on rodents such as mole, swamp, and Nile rats, mice, frogs and other species smaller than they are. Only rarely do they attack prey their own size, unlike the similar-sized caracal, a factor possibly linked to their riverine habitat.
Servals are solitary predators that establish territories by scent marking their range. Those of the males are larger than females and often overlap those of several females. As seasonal breeders, serval birth peaks appear correlated with wet seasons when prey densities are at their highest. After a 70 to 79 day gestation, a litter of 2 or 3 young are born. Servals are mature at 18 to 24 months, and lifespans, at least in captivity, can reach 19 years.
Servals are largely crepuscular, resting in midday and occasionally at night. Females with kittens increase diurnal hunting activity. They only appear to be nocturnal in agricultural areas, possibly in response to human disturbance.
Locating prey in tall grass and reeds primarily by sound, servals make a characteristic high leap as they jump on their prey, striking it on impact to prevent escape in thick vegetation. Vertical leaps are also used, seizing bird and insect prey by “clapping” the front paws together or striking a downward blow.
Threats to Survival:
Wetland conservation is the key to serval conservation due to the comparatively high rodent populations in this habitat type. Of secondary importance is the degradation of grassland by annual burning and overgrazing by domestic livestock, both actions that lead to reduced abundance of small mammals. Trade in pelts is limited only to domestic markets, especially for ceremonial or medicinal purposes, or tourist-oriented trade and is not part of international commercial exports.
Servals only occasionally take domestic poultry and rarely take young livestock. Studies in southern African found no evidence of depredation problems with this species, and farmers are not concerned about their presence on their lands.
Servals are one of the most common of the African felids and only protected from hunting by CITES under Appendix II regulations. Servals are not protected over most of their range. The U.S. Endangered Species Act lists the Barbary serval, L. s. constantina, of Morocco as Endangered. No animals have been reported from Algeria since 1937, and overall the North African population is thought to have been isolated from the sub-Saharan population for at least 6,000 to 7,000 years.
A regional studbook for captive servals held in North American zoos exists as well as a Species Survival Plan. While some specimens cannot be traced to any specific geographic origin, a number of others are South African in origin and most likely represent only a single subspecies. The 2014 AZA Felid TAG’s target population is 75 individuals.
Serval SSP Coordinator & Studbook Keeper:
Dan Dembiec, Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens
Small African Cat SSPs Education Advisors:
Kelly Miller, Palm Beach Zoo
Alma Ruffin, Riverbanks Zoo and Garden