More on the Melanistic Serval

As Meredith posted the other day, one of our camera traps caught a melanistic serval. Melanism is known across a broad variety of animals, but is particularly prevalent in the cat family. Of 37 known species of cat, at least 13 species have melanistic individuals: the domestic cat, the jungle cat, the leopard, the jaguar, the bobcat, Geoffroy’s cat, the kodkod, the oncilla, the colocolo, the jaguarundi, the Asian golden cat, the marbled cat, and the serval.

Why some individuals are melanistic and why cats are particularly prone to melanism is still a bit of a mystery. It is generally thought that melanism is maladaptive – that is, that individuals with melanism are at a disadvantage because they stand out more than normally colored individuals and so are more likely to be targets of predators and competitors. The consequence is that in populations with a lot of melanism, there ought to be some sort of advantage to offset the disadvantage.

Melanistic serval

One possible explanation for melanism is that cats’ black fur helped keep them warm at higher elevations by absorbing more sunlight. This idea came from the fact that many cat populations with high rates of melanism are found at higher elevations. More recently, there have been studies suggesting that melanistic individuals are more resistant to disease.

There’s not a lot of literature on melanistic servals. But I did find an article in the Journal of East African Natural History that listed the known locations of melanistic serval populations in East Africa. Interestingly, the four main populations with melanism are all highland locations: Mt. Kenya and the nearby Aberdare highlands in Kenya and Mt. Kilimanjaro and North Pare Mountains in Tanzania. All of these are in the general geographic region of Serengeti National Park, so it’s perhaps not too surprising that melanistic servals are there too. What is unusual is that the Serengeti is not a highland.

MelanisticServalOur long-term Serengeti experts, with their decades of experience in the Serengeti, are surprised by the melanistic serval snapped by our cameras. David Bygott says that he’s never heard of a melanistic serval in the Serengeti, and Craig Packer says that while he’s seen melanistic individuals of other animals up on the rim of Ngorongoro Crater (a highland), he’s never seen a melanistic serval anywhere. So this Snapshot Serengeti image is likely the only documented evidence of melanistic serval in the Serengeti.

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About Margaret Kosmala

I am an ecologist exploring the complex dynamics of plant and animal systems. I am especially interested in understanding how species communities change over time and how humans impact them.

3 responses to “More on the Melanistic Serval”

  1. Tor Bertin says :

    Has there been any genetic work done on the servals in the region?

    Curious whether there is any kind of genetic differentiation between highland cats and those in the lowlands. I’d be interested to see if this is an individual from a line that dispersed from the highland regions (which, from the sounds of it, have a higher rate of melanism), or if this is a lowland individual which independently acquired whatever mutation is responsible for melanism.

    Also, a side note: melanism is also prevalent in the Cascades fox, a subspecies of red fox in western North America adapted to high elevation living (I recall seeing a sign warning climbers that the base camp at 8,500 feet was frequently raided by one).

    Cool stuff!

    • Margaret Kosmala says :

      I doubt anyone’s been doing genetic work on the servals. There was very little published research on the area’s servals at all. Interesting note on the Cascades fox, thanks.

  2. Elisabeth Baeten says :

    This is amazing ! So glad I got this image to classify ! 😀

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