Sammy the Serval

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Meet Sammy the Serval

Servals use their excellent hearing for tracking prey

Servals have the longest legs relative to their body size, they’ll use their long reach to get at prey hidden in holes

Sammy catchs a lure that his trainer holds up to show how servals can jump up to 3m in the air

Fun Facts

Species: Serval (Leptailurus serval)

Favourite food: Meat, beef is his favourite

How he got his name:  Surely a serval should be named Sammy! All those ‘S’s just roll off the tongue

Natural behaviours:  His amazing jumping skills

Favourite thing to do at the Earth Rangers Centre:  Keeping a look out for prey while in his outdoor enclosure. After a busy morning patrolling, he likes to stretch out in the sun and clean his fur

Here’s what Animal Trainer Meghan has to say about Sammy…

Sammy is a huge fan favourite at the community events he visits. During the Earth Rangers’ show Sammy will jump up 3 m high to catch a lure, which always makes the crowd go wild!

 

sammy serval trainer meghan

Meghan and Sammy

All About Servals

 


Fast Facts

  • Servals have long legs, big ears and fur that blends in with the savannah grass; these features help them to be amazing hunters
  • While they prefer areas with streams or wetlands, they can live in almost any habitat in Africa except rainforests and deserts
  • They are physically unable to digest plant matter, so they get all their nutrients from eating meat. They especially like rodents
  • Servals can catch birds in mid-flight by leaping over 3 m into the air to catch them in their forepaws
  • Mothers can have up to four kittens, and she will raise them on her own
  • Least concern (IUCN, 2008), but habitat loss is a big threat

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Description

Serval

Found in the African savannah, servals are medium-sized cats that stand about 60 cm high at the shoulder. Compared to other cats, servals have the longest legs relative to their body size, and will use their lanky limbs and flexible toes to grasp prey hidden in holes or tight spaces. They have tiny heads and large oval-shaped ears, which move independently and give the serval amazing hearing.

In addition to their unique body shape, servals are also well known for their beautiful fur. They have yellow/brown coats with bold black spots and a pair of stripes that run from their neck to their back. These colours and markings help servals blend into the tall grasses of the savannah. The back of their ears are black with a white patch, these markings are called ocelli and are believed to help with communication. Ocelli give young servals a way to keep track of their mothers in the tall grass and they look like eyes, possibly deterring predators from attacking from behind. Unlike most cats, servals generally enjoy playing in water, and will sometimes wade into shallow streams or ponds to catch fish. Servals are very vocal, making sounds similar to a domestic cat. They can meow, hiss, growl, purr, and, when feeling threatened, make an angry-sounding bark.

Servals are rarely active during the middle of the day when the heat is at its highest. Instead, most servals are up during the night (nocturnal), but some roam about during the mornings and at dusk (crepuscular). Whether a serval is nocturnal or crepuscular usually depends on when their food can be caught.

Habitat

two servals in the grass
Servals can be found throughout Africa, but most of their population lives south of the Sahara desert. They prefer tropical savannah habitats, especially areas with lots of water and plenty of tall plant cover, like reeds or long grasses. However, servals are incredibly adaptable; they can be found in diverse areas such as semi-desert habitats, grasslands, or high altitude environments with temperatures just above the freezing point. They can even survive in agricultural areas where humans have cut down the forest, creating a more open habitat.

It’s a different story for servals that live north of the Sahara. Currently, there are only small populations in Morocco and Tunisia (where servals have had to be reintroduced due to overhunting). Servals are very rarely seen in Algeria, leading to suspicions that the Algerian population may have been extirpated (extinct in that area but still existing elsewhere in the wild).

Although they are solitary animals, servals are territorial meaning they will defend their home area from other individual serval cats using vocalizations and, if necessary, aggressive behaviours. Servals have territories that are usually around 10 km2 to 30 km2 in size, with males maintaining slightly larger home ranges than females. Servals clearly define the boundaries of their territories and home ranges using scent and scrape markings, which communicates to other servals to stay out of their area.

 
Ecology

serval hissing teeth

Servals, like all felines, are obligate carnivores, which means they don’t have the ability to digest plant matter. Servals must get all of their nutrients from animals, mostly very small prey. In fact, 90% of a serval’s diet is made up of animals that weigh under 200 g, (slightly more than a cell phone). Since the animals they eat are so small, servals have to capture a lot of them to satisfy their appetite. One reason why servals are territorial is because they need the food in their area for hunting. The large numbers of prey that servals eat helps keep rodent populations well balanced within the ecosystem.

While servals may dominate over their small sized prey, these wild cats are sometimes preyed upon themselves. They are hunted by leopards, hyenas and African wild dogs, but they are not a significant source of food for any of these species.

Since servals prefer to live in tropical savannah habitats with tall grasses they sometimes have to live with ectoparasites such as the tick Haemaphysalis spinulosa. Ectoparasites are small insects that are found on the outside of a host animal’s body and feed on small amounts of blood from their host. Ticks can be irritating for servals.

Diet

serval eating meat
Servals are remarkable hunters. They are successful in almost half of all their attempts at catching prey while other cats average a 10% to 30% hunting success rate. Given these amazing hunting skills, servals easily catch small rodents and birds, occasionally they will also prey on fish, frogs or lizards.
A serval begins its hunt using their large ears to locate prey. Once it finds prey, the serval will creep towards it, being careful to make as little noise as possible. When the serval is at least 4 m away, it will pounce, landing with its front paws on its target. Servals also have a strategy for catching animals in burrows. First, the serval will damage part of the burrow. Next, they will wait patiently for the prey to arrive to fix the damage. When the prey arrives they will fish out the rodent using their long legs and delicate paws. Servals mostly feed on rodents like vlei rats, striped mice and mole rats, but they will leap 3.5 m straight upwards to catch birds in mid-flight. For example, they catch flamingos, spoonbills and ducks, and actually pluck their feathers before eating them!

 
Reproduction

serval kitten

While servals are solitary, they come together to mate. Although they do not have a set breeding season, mating usually occurs in the springtime. After 10 or 11 weeks, the female will normally give birth to two or three kittens in dens made in dense shrubs or abandoned burrows. The young grow very quickly at first, doubling in size over their first 11 days! Since female servals raise their young on their own, growing quickly helps the young survive. Sometimes females must leave their young unattended while hunting. To protect their kittens, adults will use a variety of hiding places, such as stashing kittens away in tree hollows for safe keeping.

The kittens will be weaned from milk after fix to six months, and are chased from their mother’s territory after about a year, at which point they have to establish their own territory and home range. Servals can live for a relatively long time if they survive to adulthood—some have been known to live for up to 20 years in captivity. It is estimated that servals live an average of 10 years in the wild.

Conservation Status

serval sitting in green grass

  • Least concern (IUCN, 2008)
  • Although occasionally hunted for their fur, the biggest threat to servals is habitat loss

Servals are extremely adaptable to different habitats. For example, they can live in areas of human development, however, there are limits to this resilience. Most of their choice habitats are near rivers, streams or marshes, areas that are increasingly polluted by the release of pesticides and other chemicals as well as damaged by soil erosion. As large parts of these key habitats become unsuitable for them to live, servals may find it increasingly difficult to survive.

In some parts of Africa, servals are also hunted for their beautiful fur, and sometimes trapped and poisoned to protect domestic chickens from being hunted on farms.

Luckily for the serval, international trade of their fur has dwindled in recent years because products made with their fur have become less fashionable.

We can protect the serval by encouraging more sustainable farming practices that use fewer chemicals, by not purchasing items that use fur from African wild cats, and by spreading awareness about the need to preserve habitat for animals like this amazing cat.

References: Horak IG, H Heyne, and EF Donkin (2010). Parasites of domestic and wild animals in South Africa. XLVIII. Ticks (Acari: Ixodidae) infesting domestic cats and wild felids in southern Africa. Onderstepoort Journal of Veterinary Research 77(1):1-7.
Markula A, M Hannan-Jones, and S Csurhes (2009). Pest Animal Risk Assessment: Serval. State of Queensland Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries.
Encyclopedia of Life. Leptailurus serval
IUCN Red List. Leptailurus serval

 

 

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231 Comments

  1. Roshaun says:

    I wish Sammy was my pet

    [Reply]

  2. Jovi says:

    I want one

    [Reply]

    Sobelovescats Reply:

    Me to

    [Reply]

  3. Amyh26 says:

    sammy is so cool!

    [Reply]

  4. Monimorg says:

    Adorable

    [Reply]


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