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Serval in Tanzania

Serval in Tanzania

The serval (Leptailurus serval) is a medium-sized African wild cat native to sub-Saharan Africa. As it is considered common and widely distributed, it has been listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List since 2002.

Description Edit

The serval is a slender, medium-sized cat; it stands 54–62 centimetres (21–24 in) at the shoulder and weighs 8–18 kilograms (18–40 lb) (females tend to be lighter). The head-and-body length is typically between 67 and 100 centimetres (26 and 39 in). Prominent characteristics include the small head, spotted and striped coat, long legs and short tail (nearly 30 centimetres (12 in) long). In fact, the serval has the longest legs of any cat, relative to its body size, likely due to the greatly elongated metatarsal bones in the feet. The toes are elongated as well, and unusually mobile. The coat is basically golden yellow to buff, and extensively marked with black spots and stripes. The "servaline cat" has smaller, freckled spots. Melanistic servals are also known. Facial features include the brown or green eyes, white whiskers on the snout and near the ears, ears as large as a domestic cat's but large relative to the size of the head, whitish chin and spots and streaks on the cheeks and the forehead. The closely set ears are black on the back with a horizontal white band; the ears can rotate up to 180 degrees independently of each other.

Distribution and Habitat Edit

The serval is native to Africa, where it is widely distributed south of the Sahara. It was once also found in Tunisia, and Algeria, but may have been extirpated from Algeria and remains in Tunisia only because of a reintroduction program. In 2013, the serval was spotted and photographed in the Middle Atlas mountain region of Morocco. Its main habitat is the savanna, although melanistic individuals are more usually found in mountainous areas at elevations up to 3,000 metres (9,800 ft). The serval needs watercourses within its territory, so it does not live in semi-deserts or dry steppes. 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.

Hunting and Diet Edit

The serval is mainly a nocturnal hunter to avoid being detected by larger predators. Although it is specialized for hunting rodents, it is an opportunistic predator whose diet also includes birdshareshyraxesreptilesinsectsfish, and frogs. Over 90% of the serval's prey weighs less than 200 g (7 oz). 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 uses an effective plucking technique in which it repeatedly tosses captured birds in the air while simultaneously thrashing its head from side-to-side, removing mouthfuls of feathers, which it discards.

As part of its adaptations for hunting in the savannas, the serval boasts long legs (the longest of all cats, relative to body size) for jumping, which also help it achieve a top speed of 80 km/h (50 mph), and has large ears with acute hearing. Its long legs and neck allow the serval to see over tall grasses, while its ears are used to detect prey, even those burrowing underground. They have been known to dig into burrows in search of underground prey, and to leap 2 to 3 m (7 to 10 ft) 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. Its pounce is a distinctive and precise vertical 'hop', which may be an adaptation for capturing flushed birds. It is able to leap up to 3.6 m (12 ft) horizontally from a stationary position, landing precisely on target with sufficient force to stun or kill its prey upon impact. The serval is an efficient killer, catching prey on an average of 50% of attempts, compared to an average of 38% for leopards and 30% for lions.

The serval is extremely intelligent, and demonstrates remarkable problem-solving ability, making it notorious for getting into mischief, as well as easily outwitting its prey, and eluding other predators. The serval often plays with its captured prey for several minutes before consuming it. In most situations, it ferociously defends its food against attempted theft by others. Males can be more aggressive than females.

Behavior Edit

Like most cats, the serval is a solitary, nocturnal animal. It is known to travel as much as 3 to 4 km (1.9 to 2.5 mi) each night in search of food. The female defends home ranges of 9.5 to 19.8 km2 (3.7 to 7.6 sq mi), depending on local prey availability, while the male defends larger territories of 11.6 to 31.5 km2 (4.5 to 12.2 sq mi). Both sexes mark their territory by spraying urine onto prominent objects such as bushes, or, less frequently, by scraping fresh urine into the ground with their claws. Threat displays between hostile servals are often highly exaggerated, with the animals flattening their ears and arching their backs, baring their teeth, and nodding their heads vigorously. In direct confrontation, they lash out with their long fore legs and make sharp barking sounds and loud growls. Like many cats, the serval is able to purr. It also has a high-pitched chirp, and can hiss, cackle, growl, grunt, and meow.

Reproduction and Life History Edit

Oestrus in the serval lasts for up to four days, and is typically timed so that the kittens are born shortly before the peak breeding period of local rodent populations. A serval is able to give birth to multiple litters throughout the year, but commonly does so only if the earlier litters die shortly after birth. Gestation lasts from 66 to 77 days and commonly results in the birth of two kittens, but as few as one or as many as four kittens have been recorded.

The kittens are born in dense vegetation or sheltered locations such as abandoned aardvark burrows. If such an ideal location is not available, a place beneath a shrub may be sufficient. The kittens weigh around 250 g (9 oz) at birth, and are initially blind and helpless, with a coat of greyish woolly hair. They open their eyes at 9 to 13 days of age, and begin to take solid food after around a month. At around six months, they acquire their permanent canine teeth and begin to hunt for themselves; they leave their mother at about 12 months of age. They may reach sexual maturity from 12 to 25 months of age. Life expectancy is about 10 years in the wild, and up to 20 years in captivity. The longest recorded life of an African serval in the wild is 26 years of age. In captivity, average lifespan is 22.4 years.

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