Developmental selection, the non-random elimination of offspring during development, is hypothesized to alter the opportunity for selection on a given trait at later stages of the life cycle. Here, we provide a direct demonstration of developmental selection against developmental instability, assessed as the incidence of minor, discrete phenotypic abnormalities in the male sex comb, a condition-dependent secondary sexual trait in Drosophila bipectinata. We exposed developing flies from two geographically separate populations to increasing levels of temperature stress, and recovered the males that died during development by teasing them out of their pupal cases. These dead males, the so-called 'invisible fraction' of the population, were more developmentally unstable than their surviving counterparts, and dramatically so under conditions of relatively high temperature stress. We illustrate that had these dead juvenile flies actually survived and entered the pool of sexually mature adult individuals, their mating success would have been significantly reduced, thus intensifying sexual selection in the adult cohort for reducing developmental instability. The data suggest that without accounting for developmental selection, a study focusing exclusively on the adult cohort may unwittingly underestimate the net force of selection operating on a given phenotypic trait. © 2013 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society.