African Serval Kittens PlayingThe Serval (Leptailurus serval) is a medium-sized African wild cat. The length is 85 cm (34 in), plus 40 cm (16 in) of tail, and the shoulder height is about 53 cm (21 in). Weight can range from 9 to 20 kg (20-44 lbs). Life expectancy is about 12-20 years. It is a slender animal, with long legs and a fairly short tail. The tall, oval ears are set close together. The pattern of the fur is variable. Usually, the Serval is boldly spotted black on tawny. The "servaline" form has much smaller, freckled spots. In addition, melanism is known to exist in this species, giving a similar appearance to the black panther. White servals are white with silvery grey spots and have only occurred in captivity.

Its main habitat is the savanna, although melanistic individuals are more usually found in mountainous areas. The Serval needs watercourses within its territory, so it does not live in semi-deserts or dry steppes. It is able to climb and swim, but it seldom does so. It has now dwindled in numbers, due to human population taking over its habitat and hunting it for its pelt. It is protected in most countries. The Serval is listed in CITES Appendix 2, indicating that it is "not necessarily now threatened with extinction but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled."

Adaptation and Breeding

African Serval on the prowlAlthough the Serval is highly specialized for catching rodents, it is an opportunistic predator whose diet also includes hares, hyraxes, birds, reptiles, insects, fish, and frogs The Serval has been observed taking larger animals, such as small antelopes, but over 90% of the Serval's prey weighs less than 200g (7 oz). The Serval eats very quickly, and if its food is big enough, it sometimes eat so quickly that it regurgitates the food because of clogging in the throat.

As part of its adaptations for hunting in the savannas, the Serval boasts long legs (the longest of all cats, relative to body size) and large ears. The long legs and neck allow the Serval to see over tall grasses, while its ears are used to detect rodents, even those burrowing underground. While hunting, the Serval will pause for up to 15 minutes at a time to listen with eyes closed. The Serval's pounce is a distinctive vertical 'hop', which may be an adaptation for catching flushed birds. The Serval is a highly efficient hunter, catching prey on as many as 50% of attempts, compared to around one in ten for most species of cat. The Serval may also dig into burrows and fish the unlucky inhabitants out.

African Serval KittenThe gestation period for a female Serval is 66-77 days, almost three months. The litter consists of two or three young (called kittens), sometimes as few as one or as many as five. They are raised in sheltered locations like abandoned aardvark burrows. If such an ideal location is not available, a place behind a shrub may be sufficient. The Serval is sometimes preyed upon by the Leopard and other large cats. More dangerous for this cat are humans. The Serval was extensively hunted for its fur. It is still common in West and East Africa, but it is extinct in the South African Cape Province and very rare north of the Sahara.

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 one of the most famous Italian novels of the 20th century, Il Gattopardo.