A Melanistic Serval Cat in Kenya - Observation of the Week, 11/17/18

This melanistic Serval, seen in Kenya by @srullman, is our Observation of the Week!

“I’d like to be a biologist because I like to study life. I like to cut off bark of trees with my pocketknife. I like to study plants and things. I like [to] study animals, especially raccoons, foxes, and all living things.”

That’s what Dr. Stan Rullman wrote while in second grade, when responding to the question What do you want to be when you grow up? While he denies debarking trees with his knife (and now wonders why a second grader was allowed to run around with a pocket knife), Stan does “recall prying off the bark of fallen trees to look for critters and see the intricate patterns of bark beetles underneath.”

Stan’s second grade essay proved prescient, as he earned a PhD in Urban Ecology and worked as a Wildlife/Conservation Biologist and Educator on Washington State’s Bainbridge Island before his current position as Research Director for Earthwatch Institute. “I help oversee our support of research projects in about 30 countries around the world, most of which have something to do with wildlife and conservation,” he explains. “I am very interested in human-wildlife conflict issues, which seem to be increasing as wild creatures find the space allotted them to be more and more restricted, and primary food resources shrinking, prompting their forays into the human realm.”

It was on a trip with students from the North Hollywood High School Zoo Magnet that Stan encountered the melanistic serval you see pictured here. Thanks to funding from Linda Duttenhaver, several students and zoo staff get to participate in an Earthwatch project each year, and in 2017 they traveled to Kenya and took part in a project “assessing the efficacy of various deterrents deployed to keep elephants out of the crops that local community members struggle to grow in the increasingly dry, arid conditions.”

While in the field, the group noticed hornbills and White-bellied Go-Away-Birds mobbing an animal. At first they figured it was a black dog, but it soon became clear that the animal was a felid, “though the black color was throwing all of us off.”

I was in the front of the bush vehicle with Dr. Bruce Schulte, the principal investigator for the elephant project, with a crew of the students standing up and observing the creature’s progress through the pop-top, open-air roof. We kept as quiet as we possibly could, with the only noise being the digital clicking from the cameras...Finally, when it was about 40 meters away, it stopped— suddenly aware of something blocking its progress down the road. Equally nervous and curious, it slunk off the road, skirting around our vehicle about 30-35 meters away through the grass and brush.    

If you’re familiar with servals, you’ll know why the group was at first taken aback by the black fur of this melanistic individual - the coats of most servals have a yellowish ground color spangled with black dots and stripes. A medium sized cat (they weigh 8-18 kg (18-40 lbs) and reach a height of about 54-62 cm (21-24 in) at the shoulder), the serval is a solitary predator that generally eats small prey such as rodents, birds, insects, and snakes. They’re known for their incredible leaping ability, which they can use to knock down larger birds.

Stan waited over a year to post this observation because he was concerned about bringing attention to such an uncommon individual cat, but after seeing an article about melanistic leopards he got in touch with the article’s author, Dr. Lucas Gonçalves, a Brazilian wildlife biologist. “I sent him some photos of the Tsavo serval, and he indicated 16 records of such creatures, primarily from the Mt. Kenya area (where they are fairly well known) as well as the Pare Mountains of northern Tanzania - just across the border from the Tsavo complex. That really sparked my interest in this topic, and eventually, wore down my concerns regarding ‘outing’ this fabulous cat.”

Stan (pictured above) has “been promoting iNaturalist as a bridge between observers and the highly participatory (and certainly not passive) nature of collecting and posting of their observations - making them available to the larger scientific community,” and is currently suggesting iNaturalist could be used “to engage our local residents in collecting observations of obligate vernal pool species (e.g. fairy shrimp, wood frogs/blue-spotted salamanders/spotted salamanders (eggs), etc.) that could then be provided to the Massachusetts Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program” to help protect the vernal pools in and around his township. He sees data created by citizen scientists as a powerful way to engage with policymakers.

And Stan tells me that using iNaturalist “has rekindled my interest in what E.O. Wilson calls ‘the little things that run the world,’...

Though much of my professional career as a naturalist first and ecologist later has shifted my focus to birds and carnivores, I still find myself looking under logs and bark, especially if I’ve got my macro lens with me to document such observations on iNaturalist.

- by Tony Iwane.

- After an inspiring National Moth Week event, Stan has now started Project Porchlight on iNaturalist, check it out!

- Stan sent me to this interesting paper about citizen science and conservation decision-making.

- “The students from the zoo were absolutely amazing to work with,” says Stan. “Their passion for nature, their untarnished sense of wonder, and their interest in the research were inspiring. And several of the students were avid iNaturalists!” Here are @rynaturalist‘s posts from the trip.

Posted by tiwane tiwane, November 17, 2018 23:17



Beautiful Beautiful Beautiful!!!!!
Congratulations Stan @srullman ! You left me breathless just imagining being in your place. Yes, because with your photo, it's like I'm by your side seeing what you've seen. Wow !! Thanks :-)

Posted by alessandradalia about 1 year ago (Flag)

How fabulous!

Well done Stan!

Posted by susanhewitt about 1 year ago (Flag)

What a sight! Bravo!

Posted by amzapp about 1 year ago (Flag)

What an absolutely gorgeous serval. Great job Stan!

Posted by erickaraiza85 about 1 year ago (Flag)

Fantastic sighting.
A rare moment captured.
Well done, Stan.

Posted by wynand_uys about 1 year ago (Flag)

Amazed by this serval. Thank you a lot, Stan!

Posted by kastani about 1 year ago (Flag)

It used to be normal for boys to carry pocket knives - and we used them for carving our initials in trees - especially if we had a girl friend. Nothing to be ashamed of. Cool cat and great images of it.

Posted by daverogers about 1 year ago (Flag)

I love this article! @srullman , you are an inspiration to everyone around you here at Earthwatch, and everywhere you go to support the study of the wild world. Thanks for bringing iNaturalist into my life with unmatched enthusiasm and care.

Posted by doughekf about 1 year ago (Flag)

Really cool Stan!

Posted by mmulqueen about 1 year ago (Flag)

Sweet find Stan!

Posted by bluejay2007 about 1 year ago (Flag)

Folks have crossed servals and domestic cats now and we are lucky to have the resulting Savannah cats!!! There are tons of melanistic savannahs being born among the regular, brown spotted ones, as well as snow and silver varieties. These are genetic traits that pop up once in a while in wild big cats also.

We did carry switchblades as kids also , used it to peel apples, play carving games in the ground, used it as a tool....it was a very normal thing 😊 I miss those days when I was a little girl climbing trees and roaming the fields!

Posted by etorod 12 months ago (Flag)

Wow, what an absolutely beautiful creature! Thanks for the ability to appreciate it's beauty in it's own environment!
-Matthew Forrester
Well Repair

Posted by mforrester 12 months ago (Flag)

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