Proportionately, it’s got the longest legs of any feline. Native to Africa, the serval (Leptailurus serval) is a swift and spotted predator whom untrained eyes might mistake for the larger, faster cheetah.
Cheetahs like to run down their victims, but the serval’s tall limbs serve a different purpose. Able to jump 9 feet (3 meters) vertically, this wild cat treats pouncing like an art form. It’s also a great listener, and that’s bad news for rodents.
Servals Have a Leg Up on Their Prey
Weighing up to 40 pounds (18 kilograms), grown servals get a lot heavier than your Aunt Beth’s pampered tabby. On the other hand — or should we say “paw”? — this species is a total lightweight compared to some of Africa’s other felines. Cheetahs, for instance, can tip the scales at anywhere from 75 to 140 pounds (34 to 64 kilograms) once they’ve reached adulthood.
Still, there’s no other cat built quite like Leptailurus serval. Ocelots and servals weigh about the same. Yet with a shoulder height of around 24 inches (60 centimeters), servals stand about 8 inches (20 centimeters) taller than those American wild cats.
Serval legs are quite something. As a rule, cats walk around on their toes. And the serval is no exception. Clawed and flexible, its digits are the perfect tools for hooking smaller animals. Whether they’re pulling frogs out of reed beds or snatching live fish, servals know how to get a grip.
Between those toes and the wrist/ankle, we find a set of bones called the metatarsals. Servals have unusually long ones (for a cat, at least), which dramatically increases the length of all four limbs.
Standing tall is a useful skill when your home’s a savanna. The serval’s natural range is vast and bicoastal, extending from South Africa to the upper Sub-Sahara (and a small chunk of Morocco). Broad stereotypes about hydrophobic cats don’t apply to this species. Servals like wetlands and most often stalk their prey in water-rich areas full of shrubs, tall grasses and reed beds.
Have You Seen the Serval’s Ears?
Patience is a virtue, so they say. Show us a serval and we’ll show you a cat that knows how to bide its time.
The legs aren’t the only body parts which look a bit protracted. Sure, the face is narrow and the skull’s pretty small. But good grief, have you seen those ears?! Relative to its size, Leptailurus serval has the largest ears in the entire cat family.
According to the San Diego Zoo, if your ears were as proportionately big as the serval’s, they’d be the size of dinner plates. Tall, broad and mobile, serval ears are so acute that the cats can actually hear rodents scuttling underground. Plus, they’re able to detect high-pitched squeaks inaudible to us humans.
Because of all this, servals like to wait around and listen for their meals. The cats mostly hunt early in the morning and late in the afternoon, though late-night prowls aren’t out of the question.
Leaps and Bounds — These Cats Can Jump
Servals can pounce with greater accuracy than some other cats. Springing from the ground with all four legs, they’ll come crashing down on a victim, pinning it beneath the forepaws and then killing the hapless critter with a powerful bite. Horizontally, servals can cover 12 feet (almost 4 meters) in a single bound.
Birds in midflight aren’t safe around hungry servals; the cats can pluck them right out of the air.
Jumping also helps servals corral grounded prey. By bouncing up and down repeatedly, servals frighten little animals into abandoning their hiding spots.
Going airborne has the added benefit of helping the cats assess their surroundings. But whether they’re flying high or standing still, servals are pretty darn observant. Thanks to the species’ elongated neck, a serval that’s standing on all fours can hold its head 30 inches (75 centimeters) off the ground.
All the better to see you with.
Certain targets, once detected, are easily dispatched with calculated pounces. Servals can also use their long arms to yank wriggling fish out of rivers and drag rodents from deep burrows. Snakes require a different approach; servals handle the legless reptiles by kicking them to death.
Leptailurus serval needs a healthy ecosystem to survive. In the span of a single year, one of these cats may kill and devour about 250 snakes and 4,000 rodents.
Though servals won’t turn down the occasional flamingo, stork or young antelope dinner, they typically hunt animals weighing 7 ounces (200 grams) or less. Besides all the prey items we’ve already mentioned, servals are wont to gobble up crabs, insects, frogs and lizards.
Diet, Mating Habits and Predators
If ours is a dog-eat-dog world, it’s a cat-eat-cat world, too. Leopards are among the serval’s few natural predators. (As are hyaenas and wild dogs.)
Much like leopards and cheetahs, most servals have yellow-brown fur with black markings. Servals rock a mixture of both spots and stripes, although the exact pattern may vary from one individual to the next. On the back of each ear, there’s a white dot surrounded by black fur.
Between mating seasons, servals mostly keep to themselves. Fathers play no role in rearing kittens; the little dearies will spend as long as a full year trailing their mothers. Adults live and hunt within “home ranges” covering 4 to 12 square miles (10 to 31 square kilometers). To communicate with other cats, servals rub against — or urinate on — landmarks like shrubs and grass clumps.
At the species level, Leptailurus serval isn’t deemed endangered or even threatened. However, it’s now part of a controversial practice within the exotic pet trade.
Servals and domestic housecats can successfully interbreed. Enter the Savannah cat, an expensive hybrid between the two that’s been around for over 30 years. Savannahs aren’t like other pet cats; they can weigh a formidable 25 pounds (11 kilograms) and jump more than 8 feet (2.4 meters) straight into the air.
Prone to mischief, the energetic cats can wreak havoc on all kinds of household items if left unsupervised. Due to their wild ancestry, some places — such as Australia — have banned Savannahs outright. Depending on where you live, Savannahs of some or all generations might be illegal to own.