SERVAL : Cat with longest legs

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The serval (Leptailurus serval) is a medium-sized African wild cat. A recent DNA studies have proved that servals are closely related to the African golden cat (Profelis aurata) and the caracal (Caracal caracal). They are believed to have diverged from a common ancestory about 5.4 million years ago.

Longest legs relative to body size

Servals have the longest legs of any cat, relative to their body size due to which it is relatively one of the tallest cats. This is mostly due to the greatly elongated metatarsal bones in the feet. Their toes are also elongated, and unusually mobile. This helps the animal in capturing hidden prey. Another distinctive feature is large oval ears set close together on a small head compared to the body-size. The back of the ears is black with a distinctive white bar. Large auditory bullae in the skull is also indicative of a particularly acute sense of hearing.

Servals are medium-sized, slender-looking strong cats with a short tail. They measure 60 to 95 cm in head-body length, with a relatively short (20 to 45 cm) tail. Shoulder height reaches 54 to 66 cm, while weight ranges from 9 to 18 kg in males and 7 to 12 kg in females.

An acrobatic hunter

Servals are opportunistic, nocturnal predators. They usually take small animals. In 95 per cent of the cases they go for prey weighing less than 250g, which are devoured whole. Although they are specialized for catching rodents, but when opportunity arises they do not hesitate in taking hares, hyraxes, birds, reptiles, fish and even insects and frogs.

Sometimes larger animals like gazelles and springbok are also attacked. In their case small bones along with the flesh are consumed, but organs like intestines, hooves, feet, beak, fur and feathers are avoided.

As part of its adaptations for hunting in savannas, serval’s long legs and neck help it in seeing over tall grass, jumping over the prey and achieving speed while pursuing the prey. There are claims that servals can gain top speed of 80 kilometers per hour (50 mph). They are also capable of leaping 2 to 3.6 metres in the air from standing position like an acrobat and catch low flying birds.

Large ears provide them acute hearing which helps in detecting prey, even those that are hiding underground. Servals have distinctive hunting style. While they are in search of prey amidst the long grass they pause every now and then, listen for few seconds and again start searching. This exercise is for catching the sound created especially by burrowing creatures hiding underground. Once the source of sound is located serval digs into the burrows to reach the prey. In the case of birds hiding in the grass, after listening the sound the cat pounces in a distinctive and precise vertical ‘hop’, which may be an adaptation for capturing flushed birds. It leaps up to 3.6 metres (12 ft) horizontally from a stationary position and usually lands precisely on target with sufficient force to stun or kill the prey upon impact. It is claimed that the success rate of the cat in catching prey is 50 per cent on an average.

Servals are often seen playing with the captured prey for several minutes before consuming it. Though they are vulnerable against the bigger predators, but in most situations, they have been observed defending their quarry ferociously against attempted theft by others. Males are more aggressive than females.

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Behavior

Like many cat species, servals are also solitary and nocturnal hunters. They set out every night in search of food, often covering 3 to 4 kilometers. While males have territories of 12 to 31 square kilometers, female home ranges are shorter spread over 10 to 20 square kilometers. In both the cases area of territory depends upon the food availability. If the food is in abundance territory will be small, if it is scarce home range tends to be wider. In either case it is defended fiercely by the owner.

Serval in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania (CC BY 3.0) pix - Bob

Like many cats, servals too mark their territory by spraying urine onto prominent objects such as big stone, tree trunk, bushes, or, less frequently, by scraping fresh urine into the ground with its claws. Threat displays between hostile servals are often highly exaggerated. In such situations animals flatten their ears and arch their backs, baring their teeth they nod their heads vigorously. When there is direct confrontation, both the animals lash out with their long forelegs and emit sharp barking sounds and loud growls. Like many cats, servals too are able to purr. They can also emit high-pitched chirping sounds and can hiss, cackle, growl, grunt, and meow.

Kittens are born during food abundance

In servals period of oestrus is for four days and it is so timed that the kittens will be born shortly before the peak breeding season of rodents, serval’s main food. These cats are, however, able to give birth to multiple litters throughout the year, but they usually does so only when the earlier litters die shortly after birth. Their gestation period lasts from 66 to 77 days and commonly two kittens are born, although sometimes as few as one or as many as four have been recorded.

Before giving birth to kittens female searches out a secured place, which can be dense vegetation or abandoned aardvark burrow. If an ideal location is not found, a place beneath a shrub can be selected. Kittens are born blind and can weigh around 250 g (8.8 oz). These helpless cuddly kittens are born with a coat of greyish woolly hairs. Their eyes open when they are 9 to 13 days old and begin to take solid food after around a month. When they are around six months old they acquire permanent canine teeth and begin to hunt on their own; when they are about a year old they leave their mother to lead an independent life. They may reach sexual maturity between 12 to 25 months of age.

Serval’s life expectancy is about 10 years in the wild and up to 20 years in captivity. The longest recorded life of an African serval in the wild is 23 years. In captivity, average lifespan is 22 years.

Black and white servals

Servals’ have variable fur pattern. Usually they have bold black spots on tawny background, with two or four stripes running from the top of the head down the neck and back and transforming into spots that are smaller and freckled. Melanistic or dark colored servals are also quite common in some parts of the range that are often mistaken for “black panther” or melanistic leopard by the common people.

As far as white servals are concerned they have never been documented in the wild. There are only four documented cases of such animals and they all relates to captive servals. Out of these, three males were born at Big Cat Rescue on Easy Street. Kongo and Tonga were born in 1997 and Pharaoh in 1999. Kongo died in 2004 after a severe reaction to hay bedding. Fourth one was born and died at the age of two weeks in Canada in the early 1990s.

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Serval range map based on version sourced from IUCN Red List (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Distribution and habitat

Servals are found in Africa, where they are widely distributed in the savanna long-grass environments south of the Sahara. They are particularly associated with reedbeds and other riparian vegetation types. There was a time when they were also found in Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, but may have been wiped out from Algeria. It is still found in Tunisia as it was reintroduced under a program. The cat vanished in the Cape provinces of South Africa over the last century mainly due to poaching, indiscriminate hunting and habitat loss.

It has been observed that melanistic individuals are more commonly found in alpine grasslands, up to 3,500 metres on Mount Kilimanjaro. Servals prefer places with watercourses within their territory, so they are not found in semi-deserts or dry steppes. They also avoid jungles with thick vegetation, however, they may be found along forest fringes. They are able to climb and swim, but seldom do so.

Subspecies

Mammal Species of the World recognizes 19 subspecies, but some authorities treat several of these as synonyms.

  • Leptailurus serval serval – found in The Province of the Cape of Good Hope, commonly known as Cape Province.
  • Leptailurus serval beirae – found in Mozambique.
  • Leptailurus serval brachyurus – found in West Africa, Sahel to Ethiopia.
  • Leptailurus serval constantinus – found in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
  • Leptailurus serval faradjius;
  • Leptailurus serval ferrarii;
  • Leptailurus serval hamiltoni – eastern Transvaal;
  • Leptailurus serval hindei – found in Tanzania;
  • Leptailurus serval kempi – found in Uganda;
  • Leptailurus serval kivuensis – found in Congo;
  • Leptailurus serval lipostictus – found in northern Angola;
  • Leptailurus serval lonnbergi – found in southern Angola;
  • Leptailurus serval mababiensis – found in northern Botswana;
  • Leptailurus serval pantastictus;
  • Leptailurus serval phillipsi;
  • Leptailurus serval pococki;
  • Leptailurus serval robertsi – western Transvaal;
  • Leptailurus serval tanae – found in Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea;
  • Leptailurus serval togoensis – found in Togo and Benin.

Conservation

Servals are listed in CITES Appendix 2, which means they are “not necessarily now threatened with extinction, but they may become so unless trade is closely controlled.” Their populations have declined because of hunting for skin trade especially in west African countries, taking over of their habitat by humans and degrading of wetlands. They are also preyed upon by larger cats. Despite the problems, it is still common — locally and even expanding — in much of the sub-Saharan Africa, but has vanished in the Cape Province (Province of the Cape of Good Hope) in South Africa. In the last few years private game reserves in the Eastern Cape, a province of South Africa, have started reintroducing the species in the hope of contributing to the eventual re-establishment of these wild cats in the region. In North of Sahara, the cat is found only in Morocco and Algeria, but has now possibly disappeared from the latter country and the subspecies found in this region (L. s. constantina) is considered endangered under US-ESA (Endangered Species Act of 1973). Formerly it occurred naturally in Tunisia, but now found due to a reintroduction program based on servals from East Africa.

Threats

Major threat to the existence of cat is from habitat degradation, vanishing of wetlands that harbour high rodent populations, compared to other habitats, and form core areas of serval home ranges. Degradation of grasslands because of annual burning and over-grazing by livestock is another problem that leads to reduction in small mammal population.

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