Intraspecific encephalization of the lion and the tiger is investigated for the first time using a very large sample. Using cranial volume as a measure of brain size, the tiger has a larger brain relative to greatest length of skull than the lion, the leopard and the jaguar. The Asian lion has a relatively much smaller brain compared with those of sub-Saharan lions, between which there are few differences. The Balinese and Javan tigers had relatively larger brains compared with those of Malayan and Sumatran tigers, even although these four putative subspecies occupy adjacent ranges in south-eastern Asia. Differences in brain size do not appear to correlate with any known differences in behaviour and ecology and, therefore, may reflect only chance differences in intrageneric and intraspecific phylogeny. However, captive-bred big cats generally have a reduced brain size compared with that of wild animals, so that an animal's life history and living conditions may affect brain size and, hence, functional or environmental explanations should be considered when linking brain size differences to intraspecific phylogenies. © 2009 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2009, 98, 85–93.