Caturday Special: Serval, Leptailurus serval

The serval is a remarkable elegant looking cat, known for its long, lithe limbs and small, pointed head with big ears. Their tails are comparatively short, which would indicate it is more of an ambush than chasing predator. This one is photographed in the Northern Serengheti, Tanzania. (Credit: Vince Smith CC-BY-2.0)

I know it’s later than usual but I would never let a Caturday special pass me by, and what a wonderful cat we have for you today.

The serval, Leptailurus serval, probably most famous, these days, for being crossed with the domestic cat to produce the somewhat in-demand ‘Savannah Cat’ pet, the serval has a millions of years old history of being a wild animal to show for itself before we started making Frankencats out of it.

Incidentally, whilst I don’t necessarily disagree with savannah cats the artificial breeding of cats with domestic cats serves no obvious conservation purpose and is literally only done for novelty and/or fashion. As a result, I have to take umbrage with it and suggest you do your best to discourage the practice of breeding savannah cats.

Not only are they exceptionally demanding pets, from what I understand, but they could also serve to disrupt local ecosystems, breed with feral cats and cause untold problems for local wildlife such as rodents and birds. So just be careful but the general  rule of thumb is if there’s no good reason to do it, it’s a bad idea.

A savannah cat – this one is F2 (so a second-generation) F1s are incredibly rare due to the difficulty in getting a domestic cat to breed with a serval. This one is 9kg, so hefy for a cat and they are probably one of the largest recognised ‘domestic’ cat breeds. Look, I get it, your cat is huge, pretty and has wildcat genes. To me, this is a bad idea. (Credit:
Galawebdesign CC-BY-3.0)

On to the wild serval, it is one of many of Africa’s wildcats. A medium-bodied cat (approximately 40-50cm in shoulder height, 60-100cm in length, average weights 9-18kg) so we’re not talking a hulking monster here. This is no lion or tiger and that means the serval is adapted in many different ways.

They tend to be mostly solitary hunters and, unlike a lot of smaller cats they are actually diurnal in their habits – they will hunt during both night and day. They take on various rodents, birds and reptiles, amphibians like frogs and toads, basically they are more of a volume hunter rather than taking down one thing bigger than themselves. If you remember our black-footed cat article, they seem to have similar approaches, although the black-footed cat is almost exclusively nocturnal, unlike the serval.

One interesting thing about the serval is (for once) its phylogeny (where it fits with its closest relatives in the tree of life). Usually I rage against phylogenies and these arbitrary classifications but the serval is one of those contested species. Indeed, it was nearly placed within a separate subgenus of the ‘Felis’ genus! That’s the small cats! But, we have genetics to take care of that for us now, and various studies in the 2000s-2010s have put the serval squarely within its own lineage, grouped with the caracal and the African golden cat. If ever I say “I understand why taxonomy has to exist…” this is why. Most stuff sorts itself out, but there are outsiders and fringe examples that, by the rules-of-thumb we use to place stuff, doesn’t seem right.

KITTEN TAX! Here we see a serval kitten with its mlew…Errr…Mum! As you can see they are adorable. In fact, so adorable that servals have been domesticated in Africa before. So, effectively the only reason to get a savannah cat over a serval is to skirt wild animal licensing issues…(Credit: Tambako The Jaguar CC-BY-ND 2.0)

Another interesting thing about servals is they have white spots on their ears for some reason. It could be used for signalling or communication, it could be used as a distraction to look like a big pair of eyes on the back of their head and deter potential predators, but its looks cute, so whatever the actual reason I want to pet them ears.

As far as kittens go, sexual maturity seems to occur between one and two years old. Females behave different when in oestrus, scent marking a lot more regularly (which servals do with urine, faeces and saliva) and apparently meowing loudly (not unlike domestic cats in heat). Gestation is two to three months and litters are relatively small, around one to four kittens. Yes, baby servals are called kittens, not cubs. Hooray for kittens!

A serval doing a big cat-stretch! I want to hug it, immediately! (Credit: John Pupkin, Public Domain)

Growth is comparatively rapid in servals, and generally they have their canines by about six months old and can begin hunting, although they don’t tend to leave their mother until they are around one year old.

For once I also get to tell you this is a species of little concern for the IUCN! (Although that was in 2019 and their recent Red List has just come out – a lot of bad news in it) Whilst they are persecuted (as all predators are around humans), with trade in the skins and their use in traditional medicine still a problem, they have such a large range and in so many protected areas that, for now, it seems like they’re alright. Degradation and human exploitation of their wetland and grassland habitats could put that under pressure, but for now the serval seems pretty safe.

A map of serval distribution. As you can see, they have a huge range, combined with their relatively quick ability to reproduce they seem to be sustaining numbers. Also not the unique, Morrocan enclave up in North Africa, where it is believed they were once far more numerous. (Credit: Thiel, C. (2015). “Leptailurus serval“. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015 CC-BY-SA 4.0)

I think it’s a testament to its hardiness, its adaptability, a cleverness that people do not often associate with cats. The serval has found a way to live in and around us. I’m fairly certain I saw a programme or a video once of servals that live around the fringes of human settlements, and human areas. They fit, almost like the African wildcat of old, if we keep allowing serval to hunt rodents and other pest-prey near our habitats without upsetting them too much, they will come to us. It’d be cool to have another species that we’re okay being around.

Imagine a world where these little adorable creatures are flourishing. That’s a world I want! (Credit: Tambako The Jaguar CC-BY-ND 2.0)

Still not had enough!? Cats up with all our cat articles here;
Top Ten Cats: Introduction – The basics of cat biology, evolution and natural history.
Top Ten Cats #10 – The Pallas’ cat – a small, very fluffy pika-hunter from Asia.
Top Ten Cats #9 – Jaguarundi – A unique and little known Puma relative.
Top Ten Cats #8 – Clouded Leopard – A stealthy and stunning Asian cat.
Top Ten Cats #7 – Jaguar – Beauty in spades, loves swimming, cracks skulls with teeth…
Top Ten Cats #6 – Lion – Emblematic, beautiful and social, an amazing cat.
Top Ten Cats #5 – Black-footed cat – one of the smallest, yet most deadly wild cats.
Top Ten Cats #4 – Smilodon – Going prehistoric with the sabre-toothed cats.
Top Ten Cats #3 – Tiger – One of the most gorgeous animals to have ever existed.
Top Ten Cats #2 – Cheetah – The placid lovechild of a sportscar and a murderer.
Top Ten Cats #1 – Domestic cats – Saviour of our foodstores and loving companions.

Caturday Special: The Origin Story – Proailurus and Pseudaelurus – The progenitor species of all modern cats examined.
Caturday Special: The Snow Leopard – The ‘Ghost of the Mountains’ gets an examination, a beautiful cat with some remarkable characteristics.
Caturday Special: The Scottish Wildcat – Once an emblem of so many Scottish clans, now this poor, cute, and feisty wildcat is struggling to survive due to historic persecution and current ongoing interbreeding with domestic cats.

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

An overly curious lovechild of Grumpy of the Seven Dwarfs and the kitsch pen section of Paperchase. Karl is on a mission to expose the seedy underbelly of academia, and thus making it appealing to wrong 'uns.

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