Although glucocorticoid hormones are considered important physiological regulators for surviving adverse environmental stimuli (stressors), evidence for such a role is sparse and usually extrapolated from glucocorticoid effects under laboratory, short-term and/or non-emergency conditions. Galápagos marine iguanas (Amblyrhynchus cristatus) provide an excellent model for determining the ultimate function of a glucocorticoid response because susceptibility to starvation induced by El Niño conditions is essentially their only major natural stressor. In a prospective study, we captured 98 adult male marine iguanas and assessed four major components of their glucocorticoid response: baseline corticosterone titres; corticosterone responses to acute stressors (capture and handling); the maximal capacity to secrete corticosterone (via adrenocorticotropin injection); and the ability to terminate corticosterone responses (negative feedback). Several months after collecting initial measurements, weak El Niño conditions affected the Galápagos and 23 iguanas died. The dead iguanas were typified by a reduced efficacy of negative feedback (i.e. poorer post-stress suppression of corticosterone release) compared with surviving iguanas. We found no prior differences between dead and alive iguanas in baseline corticosterone concentrations, responses to acute stressors, nor in capacity to respond. These data suggest that a greater ability to terminate a stress response conferred a survival advantage during starvation.