Serval

SERVAL (Leptailurus serval)

Servals are very unique wild cats -- they belong to their own taxonomic genus, have the largest ears compared to their head size, and are incredible jumpers. In fact, servals have been known to catch large birds in mid air after flushing them. The domestic cat breed called savannahs, are hybrids of servals and domestic cats.

Difficulty: Difficult

Serval Description

The serval is a medium sized, tall, and slender cat. It has a small round head with extremely large parabolic ears, which are in fact the largest ears in the cat family. There are two different spot patterns for servals. In the more generally known patter, the tawny colored fur is covered with large black spots. The lesser known serval fur pattern is called “Servaline” where a lighter colored fur is covered with faint, speckled spotting. Melanism can be common in some populations of these cats. On our serval photo tour, we tend to see the large spotted fur patterns in servals.

Servals have long legs and big ears, both of which help them tremendously in hunting their prey

Serval Distribution and Habitat

Servals are endemic to Africa, where it is broadly distributed in South and East Africa. They occupy are variety of habitats, including savanna woodlands, grasslands, and dry forests, generally in association with water, like rivers, marshes, reedbeds and floodplains. They can even be found in agricultural areas like coffee, sugarcane, or pine plantations. Our serval photo tour location is in the world famous Serengeti, but we visit in the low season when things are calmer and stay away from the crowds by being focused on these two smaller cats.

Servals are found in grasslands, savanna woodlands, and dry forests

Serval Feeding Biology

Servals have the longest legs proportionally out of any wild cat, which makes them excellent jumpers, being able to jump 10 feet (3 meters). Most of this jumping is done to catch rodents in long grass ecosystems, with up to 94% percent of prey consisting of small rodents and shrews. When not hunting small mammals, servals will predate small grassland birds like bishops, queleas, and weavers. During seasonal migrations, servals will even take on large birds like Abdim’s storks, often plucking the birds out of mid air after flushing them.

Although rodents are the primary prey item for servals, large birds like this Saddle-billed Stork are also taken on occasion

Serval Social Organization and Reproduction

Servals are solitary and territorial cats. Though, unlike other cats, adults seem to overlap each other’s territory more and are rather tolerant of other servals, with male and female traveling and foraging together outside of any breeding displays. Serval densities can often be quite high in the right habitat with as many as 40 individuals per 100 square kilometers.

Servals will breed all year around, but in the Masai Mara, where we run our tour, births peak around August-November. Litters are generally two or three kittens with up to six possible. Females will reach sexual maturity at around 15 to 16 months, males at 17 to 26 months. Serval kittens are independent at six to eight months but generally won’t disperse until twelve to fourteen months.