Serval Adaptations

The serval is one of the more specialised wild cats. This means that it will have adaptations to improve survivability. The serval has the longest legs compared to overall size of all the cats. More precisely the serval’s feet are elongated. The metatarsals in the palms and soles add to the servals height to the shoulder which is about 60 centimetres. This is 20 centimetres taller than the otherwise similar sized ocelot. The serval is 12 centimetres taller than the caracal (also a great jumper by the way).

Serval jumping onto prey
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Serval jumping onto prey. Image in the public domain on Pinterest.

These long legs assist in two ways:

  • The raised height above the ground allows the cat to better pick up sounds of small prey animals in long grass. The serval is a long grass hunter. It detects the sound of its prey and locates their position accurately on sound alone;
  • The long legs create greater leverage. This gives the serval great jumping power. They are awesome jumpers. You may have seen them in videos making vertical jumps from a standing position to around 9-10 feet. This jumping strength allows them to jump precisely onto prey in long grass. You’ll see videos and photos of that skill as well.

The serval also has huge oval-shaped ears, perhaps the biggest ears of all the cats. They are designed to pick up the sound of small prey animals hidden in undergrowth. The serval has much larger ear bullae compared to the caracal which reflects its keen sense of hearing. The auditory bullae are the middle and inner structures which convert sound waves to nerve impulses which are read by the brain.

The serval has long, mobile toes and strong curved claws. These help in hooking small prey animals; its favourite.

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The fact that the serval feeds on small prey such as the Vlei rat and four-striped grass mouse has resulted in a further adaptation: a more lightly built skull and less powerful jaws. They don’t need strong jaws such as those of the jaguar which feeds on turtles and caiman.

The serval has a shorter than normal tail compared to most other wild cat species as it is a ground hunter. You’ll see long tails on cats that rely on great balance to stay safe such as the snow leopard (icy escarpments) and margay (trees).

Serval pounce onto a small prey animal it has heard in long grass

Serval pounce onto a small prey animal it has heard in long grass. Picture in the public domain.

These are the special adaptations of the leggy, big-eared serval. The coat is a classic tabby-style camouflage; dark spots, which is somewhat typical of all wild cats although the patterns vary considerably between the species. Note: black servals (melanistic servals) are not uncommon in the Aberdare Mountains of Kenya. This is due to a genetic mutation and is not an adaptation to improve survival in my opinion.


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Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 74-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare. If you want to read more click here.

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