- Common Name:
- Scientific Name:
- Leptailurus serval
- Group Name:
- Average Life Span:
- 10 years in the wild
- 23 inches long
- 19 to 40 pounds
- IUCN Red List Status:
- Least concern
What is a serval?
Servals look a bit like cheetahs who stretched out after a nap and just decided to stay that way. These long-legged, long-necked, medium-sized wild cats look sleek and elegant as they move through the grasslands, wetlands, and forests of their native central and southern Africa.
Servals’ coats are each unique, honey-colored and adorned with spots that are sometimes so close together they look like stripes. This feature helps them blend in with the shadows of the savanna grasses and forest trees, hiding from their predators, which include hyenas, wild dogs, and leopards.
Skills as predators
Having the longest legs and largest ears of any cat makes servals exceptional hunters. They can see above tall grasses of the savanna, perform spectacular nine-foot leaps to catch birds in flight, and run as fast as 50 miles per hour. Their ears may look large compared to their short tails and small faces—but it’s all the better to hear every squeak and peep of prey animals, including rodents moving underground.
Servals are ambush predators. Their eyesight is good, but they may only need to hear their quarry to catch it, crouching down and pouncing onto the unfortunate rodent, small reptile, or bird. Their hooked claws also let them snatch fish and frogs from the water and take rodents from underground burrows. They mostly hunt at night but are also sometimes active at dusk or dawn.
All these qualities help servals take down prey in half of their attempts, a higher success rate than lions hunting together—making servals likely the most productive hunters among wild cats.
Kittens and Savannah cats
These cats are mostly solitary and seldom see other servals—both males and females mark their territory with urine and feces. When they do socialize, it’s when they’re mating or giving birth.
There is no set mating season for servals, though they are more likely to breed in the spring. Males and females become sexually mature at similar ages—females at 15 months and males at 17.
Females signal they’re in heat by urinating more frequently and through short, sharp vocalizations. Signs of a female’s receptivity to a male include purring and rubbing against him. They stay together throughout her one-to-four-day estrus period.
Gestation lasts up to 75 days, after which females find quiet, solitary places to give birth. The average litter is two or three kittens, which are born with their eyes closed, totally dependent on mom, who raises them alone.
The kittens open their eyes after about a week and are ready venture out into the open at three weeks. They are weaned at about five months, when their adult teeth start to come in, and learn to hunt with their mother.
Serval kittens are adorable—and our admiration for them has translated into a new species of domestic cat. Savannah cats, a cross between a serval and a domestic cat, are increasingly popular pets even as some places have banned owning them.
Servals have stable population numbers and are a species of least concern, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, meaning that they aren’t in danger of extinction.
The main threat facing servals is the loss of wetlands, a habitat that’s particularly likely to host rodents, a favorite food source. The growth of cities and other changes in land use diminishes the cats’ territory and food supply. Controlled burns of grasslands similarly kill the small mammals that servals rely on for food.
Servals do prey on chickens, but they seldom kill other livestock—and are excellent mousers, which is likely a help to farmers. Still, they are often perceived as threats and are persecuted and indiscriminately killed.
People also hunt servals for their coats, which are sold much like those of young leopards or cheetahs, according to the African Wildlife Foundation.
Their skins are also used as ceremonial attire by religious and cultural groups in southern Africa, including the Shembe Church in South Africa and the Lozi or Barotse people of western Zambia. In 2019, conservation organization Panthera created synthetic garments that look enough like the real thing and are already in popular use at ceremonies and festivals. His Majesty the Lozi King has endorsed the change and banned real wild cat skins from Lozi ceremonies.
Did you know?
— Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, Queensland, Australia
A 1984 study recorded that one male serval was seen marking his scent 566 times in four hours while following a female—that’s more than twice a minute, making it the highest ever recorded for the species.
— University of Michigan Museum of Zoology
One serval can eat as many as 4,000 rodents a year.
— IUCN Cat Specialist Group