Leptailarus serval

The serval is generally found in most parts of Africa excluding the arid desert regions to the north around the Sahara, parts of the western tip of Southern Africa and certain areas of the tropical rainforest belt of Central Africa. A northern sub-species, is rarely sighted and is listed as endangered.

Approximately similar in size to the Caracal, the serval has extraordinarily long legs for its body size which can be up to 3 feet in length, whilst standing up to 20 inches in shoulder height. The base fur colour is sandy to reddish brown and is covered in dark spots which have a tendency to merge into stripes along the top of the back. noticeable regional variation in markings are shown Ė in West Africa the spotted markings are smaller and much less distinct and it was once believed that these cats formed a separate species, the Servaline Cat (F. servalina). As a rule of thumb, servals from wetter areas show finer markings, whilst those from drier regions have larger and bolder spotted markings. The serval has a small but long head and large rounded ears marked with alternating black and white stripes on the rear. It has been observed that the serval uses these prominent stripe markings on its ears to communicate with others of its species. Melanistic servals can be found in the moister and densely forested areas of its range.

As many as fourteen subspecies have been named, however this is now in question and many of the lesser subspecies are often lumped together into L.s.serval reducing the number to seven. A northern form, L.s.constantinus, found in parts of Morroco and Algeria is considered to be endangered.

The servals habitat ranges form dry open plain grasslands through woodland savannah to the moister areas around the equatorial rainforests and grassy uplands of central Africaís mountainous regions up to 3500 metres. Although the servalís range covers a fairly large proportion of the African continent, the cat is closely associated with water and therefore populations tend to be fragmented.

Throughout much of its range, the serval is primarily crepuscular although nocturnal hunting is found to be common in areas closer to human habitation. In the Serengeti, the cat has been observed hunting by day, which it is thought, corresponds to the main activity period of its prey in this particular region. Although a medium sized cat, the servalís prey base tends to centre on smaller mammals such as hare, rodents including mole rats, ground squirrels and vlei rats and birds such as quails, quelea and flamingoes. In some areas frogs make up a large proportion of the servals diet, although this has been found to be localised preference, mainly centred on the wetter areas of the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania.

The serval is a specialised hunter and has particularly sophisticated hearing to assist it in its task of pinpointing its small prey. As with the other rodent specialist of Africa, the Sand Cat, the serval has enlarged auditory bullae and pinnae, which are used to listen for the ultrasonic high frequencies omitted by rodents. The long legs of the serval also serve to aid prey detection, enabling the cat to see over the tall savannah grasses for signs of movement. The serval is often observed giving a characteristic vertical leap to pounce down directly onto its unsuspecting quarry. In short bursts the cat is also able to reach high speeds and is capable of jumping up to 10 feet of the ground to catch birds.

The serval has been hunted throughout its range for its attractive coat and locally as a source of meat. In general the animal is protected in most countries and is listed in CITES Appendix 2 as threatened

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Find the species by their continental distribution

North America
South America
Europe & Middle East


Body Length(mm) -670-1000
Weight (kg) - 9-13 (average)
Litter Size - 3 average
Life Span - 19 years
Status - Least Concern

L.s.brachyurus - Sierra Leone
L.s.constantina - Morocco, Algeria
L.s.hindei - Kenya, Tanzania
L.s.liptositictus - Uganda to Angola
L.s.phillipsi - Ethiopia
L.s.serval - Tanzania to Cape Province
L.s.tanae - Ethiopia, Entrea, Somalia