Monotypic Species - The Serval
The serval is a moderately sized African wild cat. Its scientific name is Leptailurus serval or Caracal serval. While not all authorities agree, some have classified the serval in a genus of its own making it a monotypic animal. Other animals which occupy a whole genus to themselves are the African painted dog, okapi, giraffe and numbat.
The serval is native to most of Africa although not in the very southern part of the continent. It is most widely distributed south of the Sahara. It has been reintroduced into Tunisia but is now no longer found in Morocco and Algeria.
It is mainly found in savannah areas. It needs water so is not found in semi-deserts. It is not found in dense equatorial jungles apart from along the edges. Black servals seem to frequent areas of higher altitude.
In length, the serval measures between 59 and 92 cm in length. The tail is relatively short (20 to 38 cm). At the shoulder it stands from 54 to 66 cm tall and weighs from 7 to 12 kg (females) with males being slightly heavier at 9 to 18 kg.
It has a slender appearance which belies its strength. The legs are the longest of any of the cat family, relative to their overall size. The hind legs are longer than the fore legs. The foot and toe bones are elongated. Long legs and a long neck enable it to see over the top of savannah grasslands.
The head is small in relation to the body. The ears are long, oval in shape and set close together. Its hearing is particularly good. The pelage varies from a typically boldly spotted black on a tawny background. Two to four stripes run from the top of the head down to the quarters turning into spots towards the rump. The back of the ears are black with a white bar. Black servals are relatively common. Several white servals have been born in captivity but none have been documented in the wild.
The serval is mostly nocturnal. It hunts mostly by sound with its head raised above the savannah. It can also hear prey moving underground. The elongated toes allow it to dig out prey from burrows. It mostly steals up on its prey before pouncing. Servals are solitary and come together for a few days to mate. They are also very vocal. A high-pitched cry will bring other servals to the area. They will purr when content and snarl, spit and growl when angry.
Servals are opportunistic omnivores eating a great variety of prey. Rodents, reptiles, frogs, birds and insects all fall victim to the long forelimbs of the serval. Much of their prey is caught by pouncing. They are agile enough to pluck birds from mid-air, leaping up to three metres into the air and knocking the bird to the ground with its paws. They also reach into burrows or hook fish from streams. They seldom need to eat carrion as they are efficient hunters. Although it can swim it rarely does although it will leap into water if it means a meal.
Two to four kittens are born and hidden in the long grass. The mother moves them frequently. She raises them on her own which necessitates frequent forages to find food for them. Young males are driven out as soon as they are old enough to hunt as are the young females once they are sexually mature.
The attractively spotted coat of the serval means poaching for the black market is rife. The pelts may be passed off as young leopard or cheetah. The serval is also fond of a feed of domestic chicken so is often targeted by villagers because of this.
The serval is not considered in danger of extinction.