A serval (Leptailurus serval) slides through the tall grasses, turning its long neck forwards and backwards inquisitively on the hunt. Along with the caracal, the serval has the longest legs and highest jump proportional to their body size of any cat. These two unbelievably agile medium-sized cats are probably my favorite two animals on the African continent (and also the most adorable ones). Both species are highly auditory hunters; they have enlarged middle ear bones and are capable of rotating their ears 180 degrees to triangulate the location of prey. If you look closely at the footage, you can see its ears moving subtly and independently. Several times one of its ears would rotate behind its head, probably detecting the faint rustling of small mammals in the grasses. The ears almost seemed like beings of their own, relaying on the information to the serval, and only afterwards would the serval turn around to give a lingering stare. This serval remained cognizant of our presence and hunched down to walk imperceptibly beneath the canopy of grasses. We were fortunate to see the serval under these circumstances, where perhaps the cat felt more concealed than if it had been out on an open glade. Servals are known to prefer areas with understory cover to hide from predators such as hyenas, wild dogs, leopards, and lions.
The serval’s coloration was much more brilliant than the small-spotted genet I posted earlier. Initially I was skeptical of identifying the figure in the dark, but the orange and black coat and satellite dish-sized ears were unmistakable. I thought its thick stripes along the back of the neck were especially beautiful, and the back of its ears were black-tipped with white splotches resembling those of a tiger. Servals are active both day and night, though they generally prefer foraging in crepuscular and nocturnal hours. They are solitary hunters, detecting prey through hearing and stalking like a typical cat. Using its long legs a serval will pounce with claws outstretched and bite at the throat to kill prey. Rodents compose the greatest percentage of their diet, though they will take small to medium-sized birds, hares, and occasionally small antelope. Servals and caracals will also consume lizards and snakes. With the agility on par with or surpassing that of a slender mongoose, they will circle and bat at the head of a venomous snake, avoiding lethal strikes with their spring-loaded legs. To imagine operating and reacting at that kind of time scale is jaw-dropping.
Thanks to Clayton for lighting up the serval while I took this footage!