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Serval (Leptailurus serval) Fact Sheet: Behavior & Ecology

Activity Cycle

Primarily nocturnal or crepuscular

  • Active at night or near dawn and dusk (from Geertsema 1985; Sunquist & Sunquist 2002)
    • Factors influencing patterns of activity
      • Daytime activity less common in areas with greater human presence (Sunquist & Sunquist 2002)
      • Less active at night in areas with larger nocturnal predators (Sunquist & Sunquist 2002)
    • Activity of individuals at Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania (Geertsema 1985)
      • Hunt primarily near dawn and in late afternoon, though nighttime hunting also occurs (Geertsema 1985)
  • Daily activity cycle
    • In the morning, lie on a high point and sunbathe (Kingdon 1977)
    • Rest in hottest part of day
      • More active at mid-day when cloudy
    • Inactive 40% of each day (Geertsema 1991)

Home Range

Fixed home ranges (from Geertsema 1985)

  • Held for several years
    • Young males are expelled from their mother's range on reaching adolescence
  • Use of ranges
    • One or two core areas receive the most heavy use

Range overlap (from Geertsema 1985 unless otherwise noted)

  • Female ranges often within those of a male
  • Male ranges minimally overlap one another
    • Male home ranges overlap those of females
  • Kwa Zulu-Natal
    • Partially overlapping ranges of 15-30 km2 (Henley 1997, citing Bowland 1990)

Territory size (from Geertsema 1985)

  • Female home range
    • c. 9.5 km2 (3.7 mi2) in Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
  • Males home range
    • c. 11.6 km2 (4.5 mi2) in Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

Population density

  • Regional estimates
    • Ngorongoro Crater
      • 0.42 individuals/km2, minimum density in good habitat (Geertsema 1985)
    • KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
      • 1 individuals/12.5 km2 (Henley 1997, citing Bowland 1990)

Social Groups

Solitary most often

  • Exceptions
    • Mothers with young
      • Kittens remain with their mother for c. 1 year after birth
    • Temporary association between male and female when reproducing
      • Male remains near the female for 1-4 days when she is in estrus (Sunquist & Sunquist 2002)

Territorial Behavior

Scent mark to advertise home range (from Geertsema 1985 unless otherwise noted)

  • Behavior common among males
    • Males mark more than females
      • Frequently scent mark with urine
        • One male averaged 46 sprays/hr
      • Leave feces in prominent places; scrape with front and hind feet (Sunquist & Sunquist 2002)
      • A territorial male will rake the ground over a spot scented by an intruder (Kingdon 1977)

Social Interactions

Aggression (from Kingdon 1977; Leyhausen 1979)

  • Aggressively confront territorial intruders
    • Males patrolling territories and aggressively postures and threatening outsiders
      • Vocal threats may also occur
      • Response of non-dominant male
        • Lowers fore-quarters and moves away, looking backwards and growling
        • If body is half-crouched and tense, serval is ready to flee
  • Displays similar to other cats (Estes 1990)
    • Toss head up and down
    • Bat at opponents with an outstretched paw

Play

  •  "Angling play"(Leyhausen 1979)
    • Captured mice allowed to escape into a crevice so that the serval can then retrieve them
    • If a good crevice isn't nearby, serval carries prey carefully to new area
    • If mouse doesn't run into crevice, serval pushes it in with forepaws
    • A play object such as a piece of bark may be substituted for the live mouse
  • Toss and capture
    • Often toss rats, mice, birds into air, then recapture; snakes are stalked, caught, stalked again (Geertsema 1976, 1991)
      • May play in this way for 15 minutes

Communication

Visual signals (from Kingdon 1977)

  •   In aggressive meetings between individuals
    • Ears flatten to form a flat plate with the head, white bars prominent, ear tips curl over
    • Back is arched
    • Fur erect
    • Serval stand with side facing the enemy
    • Exaggerated facial expressions, teeth bared, make low mewing sound
    • Heads may also be thrown up and down, eyes wide open, ears pricked
  • Friendly recognition signaled by "curious swallowed mew" with a turn-around and shiver-tail display

Vocalization (Kingdon 1977; Sunquist & Sunquist 2002)

Serval audio, provided by Volodins Bioacoustic Group (2010).

  • Growl
  • Hiss
  • Purr
  • Wah wah call
  • Newborn call
    • "Curious chirping noise"
    • Made during the first 3 months

Olfaction/Scent marking

  • Spray urine and deposit feces
    • Used to demarcate territory
  • Scent mark more often in some social settings(Geertsema 1991)
    • A male following a female in estrus scent marked 556 times in one day

Locomotion

Quadrupedal

  • Walk and run

Climb trees

  • Shelter in trees when chased (Smithers 1983)

Leap and pounce (from Geertsema 1985, 1991 unless otherwise noted)

  • Extremely agile
    • Vertically jump over 1.5 m (5 ft) high
    • Spring horizontally over 4 m (13 ft)
      • Use stiff-legged bouncing jumps to secure prey, all four feet off the ground at once (Sunquist & Sunquist 2002)

Interspecies Interactions

Predator-prey dynamics

  • Predators
    • Hyenas, leopards, and African wild dogs (Smithers 1983, Geertsema 1991, Leyhausen 1990)
    • Nile crocodiles and lions will kill servals, given the opportunity

Competitors

  • Caracal
    • Serval often out-competed by caracal when they share the same habitat (Stuart 1985)
    • Some populations with little evidence of interspecific competition, noted in Tanzania (Geertsema 1991)

Young Serval at Play

a Serval cub playing

Enrichment items such as this one, resembling a mouse, provide young in managed care with opportunities to play. In the wild kittens capture mice and allow them to escape only to retrieve their "lost prey"; this form of play is vital for the development of hunting skills.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Global. All rights reserved.

Serval Vocalization

a Serval cub

The vocal repertoire of this species includes growls, hisses, purring, and a wah wah call.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Global. All rights reserved.

Page Citations

Geertsema (1985, 1991)
Kingdon (1977)
Leyhausen (1979, 1990)
Skinner & Chimimba (2005)
Smithers (1983)
Sunquist & Sunquist (2002)

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