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Serval (Leptailurus serval) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

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
  • Subspecies
    • As of 2017, 3 subspecies tentatively recognized by the IUCN/SCC Cat Specialist Group
      • Previously, many more subspecies recognized, though designations not based on genetic studies


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-pantherine cats)

Genus: Leptailurus

Species: Leptailurus serval (Schreber, 1777)

Subspecies: Leptailurus serval serval (Schreber, 1777)
Subspecies: *Leptailurus serval constantina (Forster, 1780)
Subspecies: *Leptailurus serval lipostictus (Pocock, 1907)

Sources: Kitchener et al. (2017)

*Kitchener et al. (2017) note that these subspecies are likely distinct but could be synonyms of L. s. serval. Further research is needed.

Early Rendering

painting of Servals

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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