SummaryIn nature, larvae of the dung beetle Onthophagus taurus (Schreber 1759) are confronted with significant variation in the availability of food without the option of locating new resources. Here we explore how variation in feeding conditions during the final larval instar affects larval growth and the timing of pupation. We found that larvae respond to food deprivation with a reduction in the length of the instar and premature pupation, leading to the early eclosion of a small adult. To achieve pupation, larvae required access to food for at least the first 5 days of the final instar (= 30% of mean third‐instar duration in control individuals), and had to exceed a weight of 0.08 g (= 58% of mean peak weight in control individuals). Larvae that were allowed to feed longer exhibited higher pupation success, but increased larval weight at the time of food deprivation did not result in increased pupation success except for larvae weighing > 0.14 g. Larvae responded to food deprivation by initiating and undergoing the same sequence of developmental events, requiring the same amount of time, as ad libitum‐fed larvae once those had reached their natural peak weight. Our results reveal a striking degree of flexibility in the dynamics and timing of larval development in O. taurus. They also suggest that premature exhaustion of a larva's food supply can serve as a cue for the initiation of metamorphosis. Premature metamorphosis in response to food deprivation has been documented in amphibians, but this is, to the best of our knowledge, the first time such a behaviour has been documented for a holometabolous insect. We discuss our findings in the context of the natural history and behavioural ecology of onthophagine beetles.

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