|The Serval, Leptailurus Serval, although recent genetic research has shown that the Serval is actually part of the genus Caracal) is a medium-sized African wild cat. The length is 85 cm (34 in), plus 40 cm (16 in) of tail, and the shoulder height is about 53 cm (21 in). Weight can range from 9 to 20 kg (20-44 lbs). Life expectancy is about 12-20 years. It is a slender animal, with long legs and a fairly short tail. The tall, oval ears are set close together. The pattern of the fur is variable. Usually, the Serval is boldly spotted black on tawny. The "servaline" form has much smaller, freckled spots. In addition, melanism is known to exist in this species, giving a similar appearance to the black panther. White servals are white with silvery grey spots and have only occurred in captivity.
Its main habitat is the savanna, although melanistic individuals are more usually found in mountainous areas. The Serval needs watercourses within its territory, so it does not live in semi-deserts or dry steppes. It is able to climb and swim, but seldom does so. It has now dwindled in numbers due to human population taking over its habitat and also hunting its pelt. It is protected in most countries. The Serval is listed in CITES Appendix 2, indicating that it is "not necessarily now threatened with extinction but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled."
Description and Behavior
Although 17 subspecies are listed by Allen (1939), their validity is doubtful (see Appendix I). Smithers (1978) examined specimens from one locality in southern Africa and found external characters among them which had been used to designate six different subspecies within the sub-region. Servals from West Africa most frequently show a pattern mutation of small speckled spots -- these so-called servalines were considered a separate species (Felis brachyura Wagner, 1841) until Pocock (1917a) demonstrated that the speckled form was a serval morph. Black servals have been widely recorded (Shortridge 1934, York 1973, Guggisberg 1975). The holotype of L. serval was taken near the Cape of Good Hope, but the serval now appears to have been extirpated from the entire southern coastal belt of South Africa and most of Cape province (Skead 1980, Stuart 1985) -- although M. Bowland (in litt. 1993) notes an unconfirmed report from a farmer at George, midway between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth.
Small mammals, especially rodents, are the serval’s main prey. Larger rodents are preferred, particularly vlei (swamp) rats (Smithers and Wilson 1979, Geertsema 1985, Bowland 1990), and also Nile rats (Geertsema 1976, 1985). Smaller mice are of secondary importance (Smithers and Wilson 1979, Geertsema 1985, Bowland 1990). Up to 12 mice were found in one serval stomach from Zimbabwe (Smithers 1978). Birds, reptiles, fish and insects are also taken, although infrequently when rodents are abundant (Geertsema 1985, Bowland 1990). Geertsema (1985) observed one young male Serval, on a moonlit night, rush into open water to seize one of a group of feeding flamingos. Geertsema (1985) also found frogs to be a particularly favorite prey item, with remains occurring in 77% of 56 scats. She saw another young male eat at least 28 frogs in one three-hour period. Servals do not generally take larger prey as does the caracal. Single animals have only rarely been observed to kill duikers and fawns of the smaller antelope species (Rahm 1966, de Pienaar 1969, York 1973). The detailed studies by Geertsema (1985: Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania) and Bowland (1990: Natal province farmland, South Africa) did not record any instances of servals taking mammalian prey larger than rodents.
Adaptation and breeding
As part of its adaptations for hunting in the savannas, the Serval boasts long legs (the longest of all cats, relative to body size) and large ears. The long legs and neck allow the Serval to see over tall grasses, while its ears are used to detect rodents, even those burrowing underground. While hunting, the Serval will pause for up to 15 minutes at a time to listen with eyes closed. The Servals pounce is a distinctive vertical 'hop', which may be an adaptation for catching flushed birds. The Serval is a highly efficient hunter, catching prey on as many as 50% of attempts, compared to around one of ten for most species of cat. The Serval may also dig into burrows and fish the unlucky inhabitants out.
The gestation period for a female Serval is 66-77 days, almost three months. The litter consists of two or three young (called kittens), sometimes as few as one or as many as five. They are raised in sheltered locations like abandoned aardvark burrows. If such an ideal location is not available, a place behind a shrub may be sufficient. The Serval is sometimes preyed upon by the Leopard and other large cats. More dangerous for this cat are humans. The Serval was extensively hunted for its fur. It is still common in West and East Africa, but it is extinct in the South African Cape Province and very rare north of the Sahara.
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