Thanks to their jumbo ears—the biggest of any wild cat's relative to body size—a serval can hear just about any peep on the savanna.
Thanks to their jumbo ears—the biggest of any wild cat's relative to body size—a serval can hear just about any peep on the savanna.
Photograph by Mary McDonald / NPL / Minden Pictures

Serval

Common Name:
Small Cats

A serval sits patiently in a grassy field, swiveling its head back and forth like a watchful owl. The predator is scanning the savanna for a meal not with its eyes, but with its oversize ears. An unseen rodent stirs under the thick brush, and the wild cat tenses. It crouches on its legs and feet before launching itself up and over the tall grass. Guided only by sound, the serval lands directly on the once-invisible rat.

WEIRDEST CAT EVER?

Thanks to its extra-long legs, stretched-out neck, and huge ears, the serval is sometimes called the “cat of spare parts.” (If a person had ears like a serval’s, they’d be as big as dinner plates!) But put together, their bizarre-looking body parts make these cats really successful hunters. In fact, servals catch their prey in over half of their attempts, making them one of the best hunters in the wild cat kingdom. That’s about 20 percent better than lions hunting together in a pride.

BLENDING IN

Servals rely on their coat for camouflage as they stalk prey and avoid predators where they live throughout parts of northwest Africa and much of sub-Saharan Africa. Cats like cheetahs sport spots, while others, such as tigers, wear stripes. Servals have both—kind of. While they don’t have actual stripes, some of their larger spots blend together to give them the appearance of stripes. That makes it tough to find a serval in high grass when it’s standing still.

No two serval coats are the same. In fact, servals that live near woodlands have more dots that are small than those cats that spend time on the savanna; scientists think the smaller spots might hide those cats better among the shade of trees. However, white spots behind an adults’ ears are supposed to be seen—they help cubs keep track of Mom when she’s leading them during a hunt.

NOT-SO-FANCY FEAST

Servals mostly hunt rodents—on average, one serval eats 4,000 a year—but they’re not picky eaters like some other wild cats. They’ll eat anything small enough for them to catch, including grasshoppers, snakes, and even birds as large as storks and guinea fowls. They’ll occasionally wade into water to gobble up frogs and other amphibians. A serval can catch up to 30 frogs in three hours while hunting in water.

Also, unlike most other wild cats, they almost never scavenge, or eat other animals’ leftovers. Scientists think this is because they’re already such successful hunters.