The serval is well adapted to hunting small prey in long grass. Its legs are slim and relatively long, and shoulder height is almost two feet (0.6 meters). It has an elongated ;neck with a small head framed by disproportionately large ears. Males average nine to 18 pounds (four to eight kilograms). Females average nine to 3 pounds (four to 5.8 kilograms).
Servals are pale yellow and marked with solid black spots along the side and bars on the neck and shoulders. A number of subspecies have been named solely on the basis of pattern mutation of small speckled spots, these "servaline" servals are considered a separate species or subspecies in early literature. While this pattern is more common in West African population, this pattern also appears in other regions and is now considered to merely be a color morph. Melanistic (black) individuals have also been widely reported.
Servals live throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa except the central African rainforest, the deserts and plains of Namibia, and most of Botswana and South Africa. Although they used to live in the Cape Province and the coastal belt of South Africa, that population appears to have been driven extinct. See range map
Servals prefer well-watered savanna long-grass environments, particularly reedbeds and other riparian habitats. This association strongly localizes their distribution over wide areas but does allow them to penetrate dense forests along waterways and through grassy patches. They also range up into alpine grasslands, up to 3,200 meters in Ethiopia and 3,800 meters in Kenya.
Overall the serval's distribution is largely intact, shrinking only in the extreme north and south due to habitat loss in the wake of changes in land use and increased urbanization. In North Africa, they may well have never been numerous due to limited water sources were also focal points for human settlement. Over the rest of Africa, servals are highly tolerant of agricultural development that in turn fosters increased rodent densities as long as sufficient water and shelter are available. Degradation of forest to savanna in West Africa probably favors the species.
Servals feed primarily on rodents such as swamp and Nile rats, mice, frogs and other species smaller than they are. Only rarely do they attack prey their own size, unlike the similar sized caracal, a factor possibly linked to their riverine habitat. Locating prey in tall grass and reeds primarily by sound, servals make a characteristic high leap as they jump on their prey, striking it on impact to prevent escape in thick vegetation. They also use vertical leaps to seize bird and insect prey by "clapping" the front paws together or striking a downward blow.
Servals are solitary predators that, like most other species of felids, establish territories. Males' territories are larger than females' and often overlap several females. Aseasonal breeders, serval birth peaks appear correlated with wet seasons when prey densities are at their highest. After a 70 to 79 day gestation, a litter of two to three cubs is born. Servals are mature at 18 to 24 months, and lifespans, at least in captivity, can reach 19 years. Servals are largely crepuscular (active at dusk and dawn), resting in mid-day and occasionally at night. Females with kittens increase diurnal hunting activity. They only appear to be nocturnal in agricultural areas, possibly in response to human disturbance.
Wetland conservation is the key to serval conservation due to the comparatively high rodent populations in this habitat type. Of secondary importance is the degradation of grassland by annual burning and over-grazing by domestic livestock, both actions that decrease the abundance of small mammals. Trade in pelts is limited only to domestic markets, especially for ceremonial or medicinal purposes, or tourist-oriented trade and is not part of international commercial exports.
Servals only occasionally take domestic poultry and rarely take young livestock. Studies in southern African found no evidence of depredation problems with this species, and farmers are not concerned about their presence on their lands.
Servals are one of the most common of the African felids and only protected by CITES under Appendix II regulations. Servals are not protected over most of their range. The U.S. Endangered Species Act lists the Barbary serval, L. s. constantina, of Morocco as endangered. No animals have been reported from Algeria since 1937, and overall the North African population is thought to have been isolated from the sub-Saharan population for at least 6,000 to 7,000 years.