The first impression of the serval says that this cat is elegant, agile and fast. Due to its slender body, colour and appearance, it is sometimes confused with a cheetah, although it is much smaller.
The serval’s coat colour is always yellow and has black dots on it. Their size varies depending on the region of occurrence. They can be perfectly round and can also merge into irregular patches. On the neck and shoulder blades dots sometimes combine into stripes.
The serval has the longest legs in proportion to the body of all cats, the rear ones being longer than the front ones. It has characteristically elongated metatarsal bones and toes, which gives it extraordinary athletics skills.
The serval also has proportionally the largest ears among cats, which are arranged on the top of the head, strongly rounded and close to each other. Their backs are covered with black fur with a white stripe in the middle.
The serval has also an elongated neck, small face and tiny eyes. Its tail is short and weaved with black rings.
Interestingly, there is both a white and a black serval variety. However, neither is a separate species. They are individuals with a genetic mutation responsible for the pigment in the body of the animal.
The majority of the servals are found in savannas, but some individuals live in forests and in mountains. They prefer more open areas, so dense equatorial forests are not their cup of tea. They need a lot of water, so desert areas are also foreign to them. They can be found in coastal areas or in swamps.
The view of the serval in a human’s developed areas are also not unusual. It can adapt if it finds enough shelter and has enough food. The serval is a species popular in domestic breeding as a companion animal. People also created a savannah breed which is a cross between the serval and a domestic cat.
When the heat of Africa hits the hardest, the serval is resting in the burrows of the aardvark or in the shade of trees. It becomes active only when the temperature drops, so it hunts mainly at night. The rainy season offers cooler days and refreshing rain, persuading the servals to increase their activity during the day. Mother raising young often rests at night.
The servals are solitary animals. The territory of one male overlaps with the territory of several females. Same-sex serval’s areas are always separated from each other. Male and female sometimes live together for a few days to hunt and rest in each other’s company.
The serval is the only cat that hunts, relying mostly on hearing. It sits silently on the ground among the grasses, closes its eyes and listens. The serval is interested in the patter of small mammal paws and the flutter of wings. It attacks, jumping in the direction of the victim, knocking it down with one paw or catching it in both front paws. The serval tries to strike a blow that will prevent the victim from escaping. This cat for fear of attracting the attention of larger predators or scavengers, eats the victim in the blink of an eye. The serval swallows smaller animals in one piece. When it feels safe, it likes to play with the victim before killing it.
When it comes to competition for a killed herbivore, the serval becomes very aggressive. Males also often fight for territory. They bend to make the impression of being larger. They bristle up fur, show fangs and swing their heads set on long necks. During an argument they hiss at each other and make sounds similar to barking.
Without preparation or run-up, the serval can jump three meters (ten feet) up, which makes it a record holder in the family of felines. Its long jump also makes an impression, but it loses in this competition with the snow leopard. The distance of 3.6 meters (11.8 feet) for such a small cat is also admirable. It runs up to 80 kph (50 mph), it is in the second place among the cat sprinters right after the cheetah. The serval can also swim, but this is not its favourite occupation.
Great hearing makes the serval also hear animals moving underground well enough to be able to locate them. Strong front paws are used to dig a hole leading to the tunnel in which the victim is hiding. Statistics on the effectiveness of the serval are 50% for all types of prey and 81% for hunting only on rodents.
Most kittens of this species are born in the rainy season, because it is a time abundant in prey. Africa revives after months of drought, the savannas are green and filled with life. This is the best time for mothers to feed as many offspring as possible.
Babies are born blind, helpless and with a fair fluff on the whole body decorated with black markings. Between the first and the second week of life, the kittens open their eyes. After a month, they try meat for the first time.
Some of the servals are clever enough to be able to feed themselves after just six months. Some mothers allow such grown children to live independently, but still in the same territory until approximately their first birthday.
It is one of the few species of cats whose population has become stable. It is also marked as the least concern on the list of endangered species, despite the fact that in many regions of occurrence it is considered critically threatened with extinction.
Although servals mainly hunt rats and birds, they sometimes like to vary their diet with a hen or a young sheep or goat. However, this is extremely rare. Nevertheless, some farmers do not tolerate these cats and can kill them in retaliation for depleting property.
Burning down grass and changing the purpose of Africa’s land for grazing ungulates makes the rodent’s population diminish. This has a negative effect on serval’s population, which are forced to hunt for reptiles and amphibians, or farm animals. They are often forced to completely change their territory.
Hunting for this cat species is forbidden only on part of the habitats, so their skins appear on the black market. Often, sellers cheat buyers, marking them as cheetah or even leopard skins. They feed on the ignorance of tourists and the fame of larger cat species. Natives who know the wild animals of Africa buy the servals’ furs for use in rites and ceremonies.
The natural threat to servals are lions, leopards and hyenas. All these species of animals are much larger and have greater strength. As predators, they cannot tolerate competition. Endangered servals resort to trees, which will not work in the case of escaping a leopard, that is a perfect climber itself. People also use this serval’s defence method to their benefit. They scare servals with their dogs and a cat on a tree makes an easy target for a shotgun.
Author: Małgorzata Banaszkiewicz
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