Small Cats of the Serengeti

 

Whilst we all love to see lion, cheetah and leopard, the big cats of the Serengeti, their smaller cousins are fairly elusive. I am referring to caracal, serval and wildcat. These three small cats manage to slink around between the large carnivore guild keeping themselves to themselves. Lion cheetah and leopard not to mention hyena will all kill small cats. Despite their diminutive size their larger cousins still see them as competition and threat. All three are solitary cats and to survive in this very competitive world they each have their own niche.

 

Caracal

The largest of the small cats, females weigh in at around 10kg and males up to 19kg. They are found across Africa, Arabia and parts of India preferring drier habitats such as savannahs, steppes and dry woodland. The caracal is a magnificent hunter. It is extremely powerful for its size and is able to take down prey as large as small antelope like duiker and bushbuck. The bulk of their diet is made up of hares, rodents, hyraxes and antelope but they are renowned for their ability to leap into the air to catch flushed birds. Their back legs are longer than their front legs and are endowed with powerful muscles that enable them to burst upwards and snag flying birds.

This cat is uniformly coloured the bulk of its body ranging from a tawny grey to a brick red with some spotting restricted to its pale cream underbelly and chin. Its most distinguishing feature is its black tufted ears and black facial markings as well as a short stubby tail that put one in mind of a lynx. It is in fact not related to the lynx family at all.

 

Serval

Probably the most easily recognised of the three and the most commonly encountered of the cats on Snapshot Serengeti. These exquisite little animals are restricted to the African continent south of the Sahara across savannahs, marshes and forest edges particularly near water courses where tall grassy plants grow.

The serval weighs between 6 and 13 kg with males being larger than females. Proportionate to its size it has the longest legs of any cat species and along with its elongated neck and large pointy ears makes this cat unmistakeable. Its tawny coat is spotted black; these spots may run into bars on its neck, shoulders or legs. Melanistic (all black) morphs are known and we have been lucky enough to capture this rarer variation on Snapshot camera-traps.

Food wise these cats are small mammal specialists stalking prey through long grass locating their prey by sound and then using their long legs to leap into the air and strike prey in a fox like manner. They have very flexible toes and will hook fish and amphibians out of water as well as mammals from burrows. The bulk of their diet consists of small rodents under 200g but they will take reptiles, amphibians, birds and small antelope.

 

Wildcat

These cats are smaller than the other two, heavily resembling a domestic cat it is found throughout Africa, Asia and Europe. They weigh between 2 and 6kg and like the caracal and serval males are heavier than females. Apart from size the appearance of the sexes in all three cats is very similar and show little dimorphism.

Its coat is highly variable in colour and pattern ranging from grey brown to red. Dark spotting tends to appear towards the rump, down the tail and on the legs which often bleed into each other appearing more like dark stripes.

It is perhaps more of a generalist than the other two small cats and takes a wide variety of small prey with rodents making up the bulk of its diet. Birds are less frequently taken but insects have been identified as an important part of the diet. Its method for hunting is more familiar to us than the stalk and pounce of the caracal and serval. It will locate prey by sight or sound and then silently creep towards it by slinking belly to the ground before pouncing at the last minute. We have probably all witnessed a domestic cat stalking like this.

 

Of course once you are familiar with these three cats it is easy to tell them apart, that is if you are lucky enough to get a good daytime or colour image. Although serval are seen out in the day caracal and wildcat are less frequently active during daylight and all three mostly hunt at night. It can be harder to tell one from the other in a black and white night image but the trick is to concentrate on the shape. Does it have outsized ears, long legs and obvious spots (serval) or a rounded head on powerful shoulders and ears with tufts (caracal) or does it really remind you of the proportions of a domestic cat (wildcat). Like always make your best guess and perhaps post on the descussions page for more help.

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About lucy Hughes

I am a moderator on Snapshot Serengeti, you will see me post as lucycawte. In my spare time I am studying an MSc in Wildlife biology and conservation. After living on a nature reserve in Southern Africa for several years my passion for all things wild is well and truly fired!

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