Telomeres are protective structures at the ends of eukaryotic chromosomes. The loss of telomeres through cell division and oxidative stress is related to cellular aging, organismal growth and disease. In this way, telomeres link molecular and cellular mechanisms with organismal processes, and may explain variation in a number of important life-history traits. Here, we discuss how telomere biology relates to the study of physiological ecology and life history evolution. We emphasize current knowledge on how telomeres may relate to growth, survival and lifespan in natural populations. We finish by examining interesting new connections between telomeres and the glucocorticoid stress response. Glucocorticoids are often employed as indices of physiological condition, and there is evidence that the glucocorticoid stress response is adaptive. We suggest that one way that glucocorticoids impact organismal survival is through elevated oxidative stress and telomere loss. Future work needs to establish and explore the link between the glucocorticoid stress response and telomere shortening in natural populations. If a link is found, it provides an explanatory mechanism by which environmental perturbation impacts life history trajectories.