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Specimen of the Week 324: Serval

By Dean W Veall, on 5 January 2018

Happy New Year to all our Specimen of the Week readers, Dean Veall here. After spending much of the last part of 2017 falling down a cat gif/video/meme hole for our event Cats Broke the Internet for The Museum of Ordinary Animals exhibition event programme I have decided to go wild with my specimen choice. Specimen of the Week is…..

Serval (Leptailurus serval) pelt LDUCZ-Z2776

Serval (Leptailurus serval) pelt LDUCZ-Z2776

**Serval (Leptailurus serval) pelt**

The ‘giraffe cat’

Serval (Leptailurus serval) By Bob – Picasa Web Albums, CC BY 3.0, commons.wikimedia.org

The serval (Leptailurus serval)  is a species of medium sized cat usually found near water on the plains and grasslands across sub-Saharan Africa, these cats love climbing and playing in water unlike some of their feline cousins. With its long legs, the longest of any cat, and its long neck, servals have earned the the nickname of ‘giraffe cat’, both characteristics that make them exceptionally well adapted to hunting on the African plains allowing them to see over the long grass. As if those weren’t distinguishing features enough, servals have the largest ears of any cat in proportion to body size giving them astounding ability to detect their prey in the grass, even those burrowing underground. With a varied diet, servals will predate upon small mammals and reptiles and are exceptional jumpers leaping more than 2.7m in the air to grab birds right out of the air.


A feline family

Servals are one of 40 (or 41 depending on who you listen to) different species of cats belonging to the family of carnivores Felidae and are closely related to the African golden cat (Caracal aurata) and the caracal (Caracal caracal). This charismatic group of felines is part of a brand new BBC natural history documentary Big Cats which will visit the world’s densest population of servals in the secure wasteland that surrounds Africa’s biggest industrial complex. It promises to be a wonderfully lush exploration of cats and a Grant Museum of Zoology recommendation for viewing.


Servals in ancient Egypt

Detail from Papyrus of Hunefer by By (Jon Bodsworth, CC BY 3.0, commons.wikimedia.org

It’s well know that ancient Egyptians had something of an obsession with cats (not much changes, eh?) but recent studies investigating Egyptian tomb paintings and in the Book of the Dead have suggested that their love of cats went beyond the domestic to the wild. The sun god Ra was the creator of all life and the strongest of the Egyptian gods. As the story goes, Ra journeyed across the sky each day, and each evening, as Atum-Ra, he slipped beneath the horizon and entered the underworld. There in the guise of the “Great Tomcat” or Mau he confronted the evil snake-demon Apophis who represented darkness and chaos and had to kill him before he could return to the world in the morning. Inspection of depictions of this confrontation has lead researchers to suggest that with the large muscular body and long ears that this cat was not of a domestic variety but in fact a serval.

Servals as pets

Servals are definitely one of the most charismatic species of cats and with increased interest in them there is an growing, and worrying, trend to own these wild cats as pets. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) servals, with the exception of a few populations in north Africa, the conservation status of servals is considered of least concern. All cat species are protected under CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) – a multilateral treaty that aims protects endangered animals and plants. While it may be legal with the correct special licenses and permits to trade, buy and own servals, these wild cats simply can not make good pets, keeping servals in homes will not be able to tame their wild instincts that would take thousands of generations to breed out. Ultimately, as pets, these highly intelligent wild animals will have a terrible quality of life.

Dean Veall is Learning and Access Officer at the Grant Museum of Zoology.

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