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Serval (Leptailurus serval) Fact Sheet, 2010  

Last Updated: Dec 2, 2015 URL: Print Guide RSS UpdatesEmail Alerts

Taxonomy & History Print Page

Taxonomic History & Nomenclature

Common name

  • Serval
  • Etymology
    • From the Portuguese for lynx (lobo-cerval) via the French (loup cervier, the "wolf that hunts the stag"), via Latin lupus cervarius. (Concise Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins 1986; Harper 2010)

Scientific name

  • Etymology
    • Genus Leptailurus
      • From two Greek words; leptaleos meaning "fine or delicate" and aiolos meaning "quick moving" (Brown 1956)
  • History of classification
    • Previously assigned to the genus Felis (Smithers 1983, Corbet & Hill 1991)
    • More recently placed within the genus Leptailurus
      • In 1993, Wozencraft considered servals to be the only species in the genus Leptailurus; that taxonomy is followed by ITIS (2010) and in this fact sheet
  • Subspecefic designations
    • Varying opinions on designation
      • Some doubt the validity of subspecies (Nowell & Jackson 1996)
      • 13 subspecies recognized by the IUCN Cat Specialist Group
        • Others place the actual number nearer to 6 (Breitbeil 2002)


Felid evolution

  • Origin and divergence of modern cats (from O'Brien & Johnson 2005, 2007)
    • All modern cats diverged from a common ancestor
      • Ancestor likely lived in Asia nearly 11 million years ago (Mya)
      • Possibly one of several species of the small Pseudaelurus
  • Evolution of the caracal lineage (from Werdelin et al 2010 unless otherwise noted)
    • Line includes caracal and serval
      • Molecular DNA studies closely link servals with African golden cat (Caracal aurata) and the caracal (Caracal caracal) (Johnson et al 2006; O'Brien & Johnson 2007)
    • Group diverged from the ancestor of all modern cats c.8.5 Mya

Serval evolution (from O'Brien & Johnson 2007 unless otherwise noted)

  • Split within the caracal line c. 5.6 Mya
    • Migration to Africa followed
  • Fossil remains
    • Reported from Western Cape, Africa (Turner 1990)

Cultural History

Popular cultural references

  • Documentary appearances
    • Chasing Big Cats - 2004, BBC/Nature
      • Footage of cheetahs, leopards, lions, caracals, and servals in this episode from season 23.


Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Carnivora

Family: Felidae (cats)

Subfamily: Felinae (all small and medium-sized non-non-pantherine cats)

Genus: Leptailurus

Species: Leptailurus serval (Schreber, 1776)

Subspecies 18 listed by ITIS, 17 by Allen (1939)


Early Rendering

Serval image from Londres 1883 book Monograph of the Felidae.

Image Credit: Daniel Giraud Elliot via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.


Page Citations

Allen (1939)
Brown (1956)
Johnson et al (2006)
ITIS (2010)
Macdonald et al (2010)
Nowell & Jackson (1996)
O'Brien & Johnson (2005, 2007)

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