The serval is a medium-sized cat with a distinctive yellow and black coat. Here are the key serval characteristics to help you distinguish the wild serval when on safari:
- A large head.
- Round ears that are close to each other.
- Oversized ears when compared to the rest of their body.
- Ears are usually coloured black, with a white patch in the middle.
- Their body is slender with a short tail and long legs, probably the longest legs relative to body size of all wild cats.
- The coat can vary between different servals, however, almost all have a pale yellow coat with a combination of black spots and stripes that vary in size, superficially similar to a cheetah or leopard.
Range & habitat
Servals are a wild cat found only in Africa. There are small populations in Morocco and Tunisia, and are relatively common in East and Southern Africa, particularly the national parks of South Africa. They don’t live in any African deserts – or the Sahel – but are found in a variety of grassy habitats that are moist, and are often seen around water sources in habitats such as:
- Reed beds
- Grass savannas
They can adapt easily to agricultural areas, and have been found at elevations of up to 3,800 meters in Kenya and in Ethiopia.
Their diet is carnivorous and they predominantly prey on small mammals, such rats, and other rodents. When rodents are not available servals will hunt birds, insects, fish, snakes, and frogs and toads.
Servals are known for only killing small prey, but mature adults can take bigger prey – particularly if there are young goats or sheep within their range.
Behaviour & lifestyle
These felines are diurnal – active in both the day and the night.
Whilst the serval has evolved to survive the African wilderness, it’s not a particularly aggressive species, which has led it to be interbred with domestic cats to create hybrid exotic pets.
Their true superpower comes from a unique and intelligent hunting behavior. When on the trail of their prey in reeds or tall grass, the serval will close its eyes and focus on their amazing sense of hearing to accurately locate the prey. Servals have longer ears than any other cat, which enhances their hearing – a great asset for surviving in the savannah. Once it has located the prey, it will pounce on it with a leap of up to four meters high so that the prey is below them, with no way to escape. Their leaping ability also allows them to jump vertically almost 3 meters to swipe birds from the air.
Apart from leaping, the serval also locates prey hiding and living inside crevices and holes. They then use their extremely long legs to digs out their prey.
These hunting skills are quite unique in the cat world. While most wild cats are successful in killing prey one of every five or six attempts, servals make a kill in about half of all their tries.
The female serval holds a territory exclusive from other females, while male serval tend to have a territory that overlaps with one or two females. They mark their territories through their scrape marks and scent. Unusually for wild cats, male servals tend to be social, with groups often seen resting together in the daytime.
Female servals raise their kittens alone, and usually have three kittens per litter. Kittens are left alone for most of the day in a den made of thick, tall, thick grass whilst the mother goes out hunting, returning to spend the night with them. Male offspring are no longer welcome once they can fend for themselves at around six months old, but female offspring usually stay with their mother for around two years.
Fun serval facts
- Lions are successful in 30% of their hunts, while the serval is has a 50% success rate – making it a more efficient hunter than a lion.
- Some people keep these servals or servals crossbred with a domestic cat as a pet.
- Female servals spend more time hunting than males as they need to feed their offspring.
Meet the serval
Have you have the chance to observe the wonderful serval on an African safari? Let us know in the comments below!
Read about more safari animals.