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Serval (Leptailurus serval) Fact Sheet: Physical Characteristics

Physical Characteristics

AttributeMaleFemale
Body Weight 9-18 kg (20-40 lb) 9-12 kg (20-26 lb)
Head/Body Length 59-92 cm (23-36 in) 59-92 cm (23-36 in)
Tail Length 20-38 cm (8-15 in) 20-38 cm (8-15 in)
Shoulder Height* 0.6 m (2 ft) 0.6 m (2 ft)

*Sunquist & Sunquist (2002) note this is 12 cm (4.7 in) taller than a caracal of the same weight.

General Appearance

General body shape

  • Medium-sized cat
  • Legs
    • Long and slim
      • Longest legs (relative to body size) of any other cat species (Kitchener et al 2010; Sunquist et al 2002)
        • Adapted for hunting in tall grasses, not for speed
          • Lifestyle similar to that of the long-legged maned wolf
    • Feet (from Sunquist et al 2002 unless otherwise noted)
      • Mobility well suited to pulling rodents out of crevices
      • Digits (toes)
        • Long and mobile with strong, curved claws
        • 5 digits on each forefoot; 4 on each hindfoot (Skinner & Smithers 1990)
          • Dew claw on front feet does not leave an impression in a print (Skinner & Smithers 1990)
  • Neck
    • Long
  • Head
    • Small, delicate
  • Ears (from Kitchener et al 2010 unless otherwise noted)
    • Very large, tall
    • Mobile
      • Enables effective capture of sound
        • Serval can detect rodents in the grass and underground
    • Ear bones in skull (auditory bullae) large (22% of skull length) (Skinner & Smithers 1990)
  • Eyes (from Kitchener et al 2010)
    • Pupil closes to elliptical, spindle shape
      • Similar to that of domestic cat, caracal, and ocelot
      • Unlike that of the lion, tiger, puma, and cheetah which contracts to a small, round dot

Pelage

  • Adult appearance
    • Overall pale yellow color
      • Colors of upper fur vary from off-white to golden-yellow (Skinner & Chimimba 2005)
      • Underside lighter than upper
      • Melanistic (all black) individuals often in highlands of Kenya and Ethiopia (Sunquist & Sunquist 2002)
    • Spots on the sides
      • Solid black spot
      • A range of fur patterns may be present, varying from freckled to bolder spotting (Breitbeil 2002)
    • Bars or bands on neck and shoulders
    • Back of ears show white bars edged in black
    • Tail with black bands
      • Tip black
  • Hair (from Skinner & Chimimba 2005)
    • Guard hairs
      • c. 30 mm long over entire body
    • Underfur is dense, wavy and shorter than outer guard hair
    • Scattered tactile hairs up to 60 mm long

Sexual Dimorphism

Males somewhat larger than females.

Other Characteristics

Comparison of traits with caracals (from Skinner & Chimimba 2005)

  • Skull
    • Lighter in serval, more heavy in caracal
      • Sarvals lack a high sagittal crest
      • Muzzle projects forward more than in caracal's skull
    • Jaws of serval less powerful
      • Reflective of a dietary differences; serval consume more smaller prey items
    • Teeth of upper jaw
      • Second premolar (first tooth after the canine) present in serval; absent in the caracal

Young Serval

a Serval

Servals have a coat that is tawny with both black lines and spots, while their belly is a soft white. They top out at 40 pounds (18 kilograms) yet have the largest ears of any cat.

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

Page Citations

Kitchener et al (2010)
Skinner & Chimimba (2005)
Skinner & Smithers (1990)
Sunquist & Sunquist (2002)

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