“Thou art the Great Cat, the avenger of the Gods, and the judge of words, and the president of the sovereign chiefs and the governor of the holy Circle; thou art indeed…the Great Cat.” – Inscription on the Royal Tombs at Thebes
We were lucky enough to have a great sighting of a serval cat on our way home the other day. I have seen them before although not often – and it was usually just a flick of the white spot on the back of their ears or a tail disappearing into long grass. This time he stood in the road in front of us at sunset and looked at us for quite a while before turning and walking slowly off into the bush. We were frantically trying to grab cameras and watch him at the same time so missed our opportunity to get a good photo. Hannah managed to get a quick picture through the windscreen but it really didn’t come out well at all. They are the most stunning animals and when they face you front on, look really strange – similar to the long thin cat statues that you find in curio shops.
The serval , Leptailurus serval, is a medium-sized African wild cat. They maintain their own unique lineage descending from the same Felid ancestor as the lion, and though the serval shares common traits with the cheetah, it is the cheetah which is thought to have descended from ancient servals.
It is a strong yet slender animal, with long legs and a fairly short tail. The head is small in relation to the body, and the tall, oval ears are set close together. Usually, the serval is boldly spotted black on tawny, with 2 or 4 stripes from the top of the head down the neck and back, transitioning into spots. Servals have the longest legs of any cat, relative to their body size. The toes are also elongated, and unusually mobile, helping the animal to capture partially concealed prey. The serval has a small but long head and large rounded ears marked with alternating black and white stripes on the rear of each ear. It has been observed that the serval uses these prominent stripe markings on its ears to communicate with others of its species.
The serval is native to Africa, where it distributed south of the Sahara. It was once also found in Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. The serval needs watercourses within its territory, so it does not live in semi-deserts. Servals also avoid dense equatorial jungles, although they may be found along forest fringes. They are able to climb and swim, but seldom do so.
Servals are nocturnal, and so hunt mostly at night. Although the serval is specialized for catching rodents, it is an opportunistic predator whose diet also includes birds, hares, hyraxes, reptiles, insects, fish, and frogs. The serval has been observed taking larger animals, such as deer, gazelle, and springbok, though over 90% of the serval’s prey weighs less than 200g. The serval eats very quickly, sometimes too quickly, causing it to gag and regurgitate due to clogging in the throat. Small prey are devoured whole. With larger prey, small bones are consumed, but organs and intestines are avoided along with fur, feathers, beaks, feet or hooves. The serval utilizes an effective plucking technique in which they repeatedly toss captured birds in the air while simultaneously thrashing their head from side-to-side, removing mouthfuls of feathers, which they discard.
As part of its adaptations for hunting in the savannas, the serval boasts long legs for jumping, which also help it achieve a top speed of 80 kilometres per hour, and large ears with acute hearing. The long legs and neck allow the serval to see over tall grasses, while its ears are used to detect prey, even those burrowing underground. Servals have been known to dig into burrows in search of underground prey, and to leap 2 to 3 metres into the air to grab birds in flight. While hunting, the serval may pause for up to 15 minutes at a time to listen with eyes closed. The serval’s pounce is a distinctive and precise vertical ‘hop’, which may be an adaptation for capturing flushed birds. They are able to leap up to 3.6 metres horizontally from a stationary position, landing precisely on target with sufficient force to stun or kill their prey upon impact.
Servals are extremely intelligent, and demonstrate remarkable problem-solving ability, making them notorious for getting into mischief, as well as easily outwitting their prey, and eluding other predators. The serval will often play with its captured prey for several minutes, before consuming it. In most situations, servals will ferociously defend their food against attempted theft by others. Males can be more aggressive than females.
Like many cats, servals are able to purr. The serval also has a high-pitched chirp, and can hiss, cackle, growl, grunt, and meow.
Servals have historically been kept as pets in Africa. The Ancient Egyptians worshipped the serval as gods, and kept them as pets. More recently, they have been kept as pets in North America and Europe. Servals develop an intense emotional bond with their original owners. Often, they will choose one member of the human family they live with to form an especially close and intense bond. However, once they have bonded with a particular human family, servals do not easily accept new owners or surroundings, and they may become quite unhappy if separated or placed with other families. For this reason, anyone taking in a serval must be willing to house and keep the serval for its entire life.