Leptailurus serval (Schreber, 1776)
Photo: Deon Furstenburg
|French:||Serval / Chat-tigre / Lynx tacheté|
|seSotho:||Phaha / Tloli|
|seTswana:||Tadi / Letlôtse|
IUCN Conservation Status:
Lower Risk, least concern (LR/lc)
Cat with many names; in 1781 Forster described it as “Tyger bosh katten”, while the ancient Dutch name was “tijgerboschkat” and “bosch-kat” and the colonial English named it “tiger-cat”. Its present name is derived from the Portuguese for the European lynx “lobo-cerval” and the Afrikaans “tierboskat” is a direct translation of the ancient Dutch name.
It was first described by Schreber in 1776 after a specimen from the Cape, and was named Felis serval serval. A second specimen caught alive on the Cape Peninsula was described by Forster (1781) as Felis capensis serval. The South African Museum houses a specimen collected from Somerset West in 1898, and fossilized prehistoric serval remains have been found at Langebaan on the Western Cape coastline. The colour pattern varies throughout its distribution range to such an extent that Allen listed 17 sub-species in 1939. At present taxonomists remain cautious about sub-speciation. Nowell & Jackson (1996) recognize seven extant subspecies. The genus Felis was recently reviewed and the serval was re-classified into a separate genus Leptailurus with only the one species, Leptailurus serval.
The population to the northwest of the Sahara Desert was isolated from the southern population about 6 000 to 7 000 years BP due to the global environmental and vegetation changes that took place after the last Ice Age. The historical distribution range of the serval has remained largely intact except where its habitat was replaced by modern city development and urbanization. In South Africa it is found in Limpopo, Mpumalanga, the Eastern Cape and the western areas of KwaZulu-Natal. In the past it was plentiful in the south-eastern coastal regions of the Cape but has been displaced by human development. However recent sightings were reported in George and Port Elizabeth indicating a re-settlement of its former range. During the past few years it has been reintroduced to the area through intensive breeding programmes on private farms.
Photo: Deon Furstenburg
The serval has the typical body build of a cat and is similar to the cheetah Acinonyx jubatus but smaller and, with a relatively small head and short tail (30-35 cm). The ears are large, dish-shaped and always upright. The legs are elongated and each paw is equipped with soft cushions and fully retractable, hooked claws, five on the front paw and four on the hind. The coat colour is golden brown on the back of the neck, shoulders and back, and changes to yellow brown and cream white down the flanks and legs. The back is marked with elongated, broken, black stripes and the flanks and legs with linear, oval black spots. The tail has a continuous black stripe on the dorsal surface, concentric black rings and ends in a black tip. A thin, dark stripe runs through the inner corner of the eye down to the snout. The underside of the belly, neck and inner thighs is cream white and the hair long and furry. Predominantly black, melanistic forms of serval are occasionally recorded. Serval have a shortened skull and reduced dentition; the canines are well developed but the molars are rudimentary.
Comparison To Man
Trophies are measured by adding the maximum width of the skull to the length measured from the snout, over the top of the skull to the spine. The measurement is directly related to age.
Higher rainfall regions of 650-950 mm per annum are preferred. Serval distribution is associated with dense, tall grass, marshlands, reed beds and areas with abundant rodent populations. They are also found in transitional ecotone zones on the skirts of forests, riverine thickets and mountain grasslands. Drier habitats with an annual rainfall of 250-350 mm are occasionally occupied if suitable cover and sufficient prey are present.
Feeding & Nutrition
Activities are restricted to dawn, dusk and the early night hours, thus can the serval be regarded as nocturnal. An average distance of 3-4 km is travelled per night. During daylight hours it lies down in tall grass or in old burrows of aardvark and porcupine. The predominant prey are rats and mice with the vlei rat Otomys angoniensis and the multimammate mouse Praomys natalensis being preferred. Small birds follow in importance, especially the finches of the genus Ploceus and Euplectes, waxbills of the genus Estrilda and red-billed queleas Quelea quelea. Birds as large as the peafowl Pavo cristatus and bustards Neotis sp can be taken, as well as ducks and waders between reeds and tall sedges in water. Serval are opportunistic and will kill everything in a chicken cage. They do not scavenge and cannot be lured to dead bait. Other prey includes reptiles (lizards chameleons, snakes), rodents (Cape hare Lepus saxatilis and the cane rat Thryonomys swinderiuanus), insects (grasshoppers and crickets) and a selection of frogs, toads and fish. Serval occasionally prey on the lambs of small buck such as steenbok, duiker, grysbok and gazelle.
The serval hunts primarily by hearing, picking up the wavelengths of rustling, unseen rodents on the move. It approaches the prey soundlessly; creeping close enough to allow it to unleash its characteristic arching pounce over tall grass tops to land directly on its prey. The hunting success rate is 49-62% of attempted stalks. On average it kills 16 times per 24 hour cycle and takes up to 4 000 or more rodents per serval per annum.
Studies on serval stomach contents in Zimbabwe showed the following prey ratios:
- Mice % rats up to 97%
- Birds & fowl up to 15%
- Reptiles up to 12%
- Hares up to 6%
- Insects up to 5%
- Toads & frogs up to 1%.
Both sexes are solitary, with individual territories within a huge home range of an undetermined size, and usually avoid social contact with other individuals. Home ranges overlap those of neighbouring individuals to a great extent but the core territory is not shared. A female in oestrus tolerates a male in her territory for the duration of mating but outside of this time will attack the male aggressively. During rut and mating, an adult male and female will pair-bond temporarily for several weeks and hunt together. However, after mating the male will retreat into its own territory and the female will behave aggressively towards him until the next rut. The female raises the young alone. A single male will mate with 2-3 adult females bordering his territory. Temporary family groups of females accompanied by offspring of up to 3 kg are frequently observed.
|Serval information table
|Adult body weight
|Adult shoulder height
|Total body length (snout to tail)
|Age of sexual maturity
|Age of social adulthood (1st mating)
|1st litter born at
|Independent at age
|Gender ratio: Natural (all ages)
|Mating ratio: Natural (adults)
Absolute minimum number needed
Smallest viable population size
|Spatial behaviour: Home range
|Spatial Behaviour: Territory
|Daily food consumption (adults)
|Maximum stocking load
||4 cats per 1000 ha
(determined by prey animal abundance)
|Minimum habitat size required
|Annual population growth
|Optimal annual rainfall
Optimal vegetation structure:
Woody canopy cover:
- Bowland, JM, 1990. Diet, home range and movement patterns of serval on farmland in Natal. M.Sc thesis, University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg.
- Bowland, JM & Bowland, AE, 1991. Differential passage rates of prey components through the gut of serval and black-backed jackal. Koedoe 34:37-40.
- Bowland, JM & Perrin, MR, 1993. Diet of serval in a highland region of Natal. S. Afr. J. Wildl. Res. 28:132-135.
- Furstenburg, D, 2006. Tierboskat. Game & Hunt 12(10).
- Geertsema, A, 1976. Impressions and observations on serval behaviour in Tanzania, East Africa. Mammalia 40:13-19.
- Geertsema, AA, 1985. Aspects of the ecology of the serval in the Ngorogoro Crater, Tanzania. Netherlands J. Zool. 35:527-610.
- Kingdon, J, 1979. East African Mammals, Vol. IIIA, Carnivores: An atlas of evolution in Africa. Academic Press, London.
- Nowell, K & Jackson, P, 1996. Wild Cats. Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland. 382 pp.
- Orban, B, 2001. Serval. Game & Hunt 7(10).
- Smithers, RHN, 1978. The serval. S. Afr. J. Wildl. Res. 8:29-37.
- Smithers, RHN, 1983. The Mammals of the Southern African Subregion. Pretoria: University of Pretoria.
- Stuart, CT, 1977. The distribution, status, feeding and reproduction of carnivores of the Cape Province. Research Report, Dept Nat. & Environ. Cons. Mammals 1977:91-174.
- Van Aarde, RJ & Skinner, JD, 1986. Pattern of space use by relocated servals. Afr. J. Ecol. 24:97-101.
- Ward, R, 2006. Rowland Ward’s Records of Big Game, 27tth edn. Rowland Ward Publications.