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Conservation status
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Felidae
Genus: Leptailurus
Severtzov, 1858
Species: L. serval
Binomial name
Leptailurus serval
(Schreber, 1776)
Serval range

The serval (pronounced /ˈsɜrvəl/), Leptailurus serval, is a medium-sized African wild cat. Modern molecular DNA analysis indicates servals descend from the same Felid ancestor as the lion. The serval maintains its own unique lineage, and appears to share common traits with the cheetah, which may have descended from ancient servals. Similar DNA studies have shown the African golden cat and the caracal are closely related to the serval, and may have branched by cross-breeding.[3]

The cat's length is 85-112 cm (33-44 in), plus 30-50 cm (12-18 in) of tail, and the shoulder height is about 54-66 cm (21-26 in). Weight ranges from 9 to 16 kg (20-35 lbs) in females, and from 12 to 26 kg (26-57 lbs) in males. Life expectancy is about 12–16 years in the wild, and up to 20–25 years in captivity. It is a strong yet slender animal, with long legs and a fairly short tail. 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 2 or 4 stripes from the top of the head down the neck and back, transitioning into spots. 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 seldom does so. It has now dwindled in numbers due to human population taking over its habitat and also hunting 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."[4]



  • Leptailurus serval serval, Cape Province
  • Leptailurus serval beirae, Mozambique
  • Leptailurus serval brachyurus, West Africa, Sahel and Ethiopia
  • Leptailurus serval constantinus, Algeria (endangered)
  • 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 togoensis, Togo and Benin

Hunting and Diet

A serval from the Sabi Sands area of South Africa. Note the large ears evolved for hearing small prey.

Although the serval is specialized for catching rodents, it is an opportunistic predator whose diet also includes birds, hares, hyraxes, reptiles, insects, fish, and frogs.[5] The serval has been observed taking larger animals, such as deer, gazelle, and springbok, though over 90% of the serval's prey weighs less than 200 g (7 oz).[6] 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 utilizes an effective plucking technique in which they repeatedly toss captured birds in the air while simultaneously thrashing their head from side-to-side, removing mouthfuls of feathers, which they discard.

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 large ears with acute hearing. The long legs and neck allow the serval to see over tall grasses, while its ears are used to detect prey, even those burrowing underground. The serval has been known to dig into burrows in search of underground prey, and to leap 3-5 m (9-16 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. The Serval's pounce is a distinctive and precise vertical 'hop', which may be an adaptation for capturing flushed birds[7]. They are able to leap over 6 m (20 ft) horizontally from a stationary position, landing precisely on target with sufficient force to stun or kill their prey upon impact. The serval is an efficient killer, catching prey on an average of 50% of attempts (with a 67% success rate at night), compared to around one in ten attempts for most species of cat.[6]

Servals are extremely intelligent, and demonstrate remarkable problem-solving ability, making them notorious for getting into mischief, as well as easily outwitting their prey, and eluding other predators. The serval will often play with its captured prey for several minutes, before consuming it. In most situations, servals will ferociously defend their food against attempted theft by others. Males can be more aggressive than females.


The gestation period for a female serval is 66–77 days - 2 to 2 1/2 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 such as 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.

Serval in field

Color phases

Melanistic Servals have been reported both in wild populations and in captivity. White servals have never been documented in the wild and only four have been documented in captivity. One was born and died at the age of 2 weeks in Canada in the early 1990s. The other three, all males, Kongo (deceased) Tongo and Pharaoh were born at Wildlife on Easy Street in 1997 and 1999.

White Serval at Big Cat Rescue.


Servals have historically been kept as pets in Africa. The Ancient Egyptians worshipped the serval as gods, and kept them as pets. More recently, they have been kept as pets in North America and Europe. Servals develop an intense emotional bond to their original owners. Often, they will choose one member of the human family they live with to form an especially close and intense bond. However, once they have bonded with a particular human family, servals do not easily accept new owners or surroundings, and they may become quite unhappy if separated or placed with other families. For this reason, anyone taking in a serval must be willing to house and keep the serval for its entire life. In the United States, owning a serval requires special licensing from local, State, and Federal agencies.

Recently, servals have been bred with the domestic cat to create a hybrid breed of domestic cat called the Savannah. These animals tend to be smaller than the serval, but retain the markings and color of the serval. These animals are more tolerant of multiple owners, are more reliably litter trained, and tend to be more social with strangers. However, because the breeding can be difficult, the first generation (F1) animals tend to remain less common and quite expensive (as cat breeds go). Most states consider the product of a wild animal and a domestic cat to be a domestic cat, and therefore regulations for owning these animals tend to be similar to owning any domestic cat.


Servals belong to the purring cats. A characteristic of purring is that it is carried out on both egressive and ingressive airstream. A purring serval can be heard on Robert Eklund's Ingressive Speech website [1] or on Robert Eklund's Wildlife page [2]. The serval also has a high-pitched chirp, a hiss, cackle, growl, grunt, and meow.

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.


  1. ^ Wozencraft, W. C. (16 November 2005). Wilson, D. E., and Reeder, D. M. (eds). ed. Mammal Species of the World (3rd edition ed.). Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 540. ISBN 0-801-88221-4.  
  2. ^ Breitenmoser, C., Henschel, P. & Sogbohossou, E. (2008). Leptailurus serval. In: IUCN 2008. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Downloaded on 22 March 2009. Database entry includes justification for why this species is of least concern
  3. ^ Johnson et al.. The Late Miocene Radioton of Modern Felidae: A Genetic Assessment. pp. 73–77, Science Vol. 311.  
  4. ^ CITES Appendices
  5. ^ "Serval". African Wildlife Foundation. Retrieved 2007-03-13.  
  6. ^ a b "The Serval". Cat Survival Trust. Retrieved 2007-03-13.  
  7. ^ Hunter, Luke, Hinde, Gerald. Cats of Africa. New Holland Publishers. pp. 61–62.  

External links

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Simple English

Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Felidae
Genus: Leptailurus
Species: L. serval

The serval is a species of wild cat that lives in Africa. It is the highest jumper of all cats relative to its body size. It feeds mostly on rodents, such as mice and rats, although it has been known to catch birds while they are flying in the air. Using its spectacular jumping ability, the serval leaps into the air and bats the bird with its front paws. When the bird is on the ground, it bites its neck, killing it. The serval has been known to breed with the domestic cat, creating a hybrid called the Savannah Cat. Savannah Cats are very intelligent and reportedly act like dogs. They can be on a leash and even be trained to play fetch.


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