The Serval is a medium-sized African wild cat. DNA studies have shown that the serval is closely related to the African golden cat and the caracal.
The serval is a medium-sized cat, measuring 59 to 92 cm (23 to 36 in) in head-body length, with a relatively short, 20 to 45 cm (7.9 to 17.7 in) tail, and a shoulder height of about 54 to 66 cm (21 to 26 in). Weight ranges from about 7 to 12 kg (15 to 26 lb) in females, and from 9 to 18 kg (20 to 40 lb) in males.
It is a strong yet slender animal, with long legs and a fairly short tail. Due to its leg length, it is relatively one of the tallest cats. The head is small in relation to the body, and the tall, oval ears are set close together. The pattern of the fur is variable. Usually, the serval is boldly spotted black on tawny, with two or four stripes from the top of the head down the neck and back, transitioning into spots. The "servaline" form has much smaller, freckled spots, and was once thought to be a separate species. The backs of the ears are black with a distinctive white bar. In addition, melanistic servals are quite common in some parts of the range, giving a similar appearance to the "black panther" (melanistic leopard).
Servals have the longest legs of any cat, relative to their body size. Most of this increase in length is due to the greatly elongated metatarsal bones in the feet. The toes are also elongated, and unusually mobile, helping the animal to capture partially concealed prey. Another distinctive feature of the serval is the presence of large ears and auditory bullae in the skull, indicating a particularly acute sense of hearing.
Its main habitat is the savanna, although melanistic individuals are more usually found in mountainous areas at elevations up to 3,000 meters (9,800 ft). The serval needs watercourses within its territory, so it does not live in semi-deserts or dry steppes. Servals also avoid dense equatorial jungles, although they may be found along forest fringes. They are able to climb and swim, but seldom do so.
Although it is specialized for hunting rodents, it is an opportunistic predator whose diet also includes birds, hares, hyraxes, reptiles, insects, fish, and frogs.
Like most cats, the serval is a solitary, nocturnal animal. It is known to travel as much as 3 to 4 km (1.9 to 2.5 mi) each night in search of food. The female defends home ranges of 9.5 to 19.8 km2 (3.7 to 7.6 sq mi), depending on local prey availability, while the male defends larger territories of 11.6 to 31.5 km2 (4.5 to 12.2 sq mi), and marks its territory by spraying urine onto prominent objects such as bushes, or, less frequently, by scraping fresh urine into the ground with its claws. Threat displays between hostile servals are often highly exaggerated, with the animals flattening their ears and arching their backs, baring their teeth, and nodding their heads vigorously. In direct confrontation, they lash out with their long fore legs and make sharp barking sounds and loud growls.
Like many cats, the serval is able to purr. It also has a high-pitched chirp, and can hiss, cackle, growl, grunt, and meow.