Variation in age and size at life-history transitions is a reflection of the diversifying influence of biotic or abiotic environmental change. Examples abound, but it is not well understood how such environmental changes influence the age structure of a population. I experimentally investigated the effects of water temperature and food type on age and body size at metamorphosis in larvae of the salamander Hynobius retardatus. In individuals grown at a cold temperature (15 °C) or given Chironomidae as prey, the time to metamorphosis was significantly prolonged, and body size at metamorphosis was significantly enlarged, compared with individuals grown at a warmer temperature (20 °C) or fed larvae. I also examined whether larval density (a possible indicator of cannibalism in natural habitats) generated variation in the age structure of natural populations in Hokkaido, Japan, where the climate is subarctic. Natural ponds in Hokkaido may contain larvae that have overwintered for 1 or 2 years, as well as larvae of the current year, and I found that the number of age classes was related to larval density. Although cool water temperatures prolong the larval period and induce later metamorphosis, in natural ponds diet-based enhancement of development translated into a shorter larval duration and earlier metamorphosis. Geographic variation in the frequency of cannibalism resulted in population differences in metamorphic timing in H. retardatus larvae. It is important to understand how environmental effects are ultimately transduced through individual organisms into population-level phenomena, with the population response arising as the summation of individual responses. Without a thorough comprehension of the mechanisms through which population and individual responses to environmental conditions are mediated, we cannot interpret the relationship between population-level and individual-level phenomena. © 2010 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2011, 102, 100–114.