The maintenance of genetic variation in traits under natural selection is a long-standing paradox in evolutionary biology. Of the processes capable of maintaining variation, negative frequency-dependent selection (where rare types are favoured by selection) is the most powerful, at least in theory; however, few experimental studies have confirmed that this process operates in nature. One of the most extreme, unexplained genetic polymorphisms is seen in the colour patterns of male guppies (Poecilia reticulata). Here we manipulated the frequencies of males with different colour patterns in three natural populations to estimate survival rates, and found that rare phenotypes had a highly significant survival advantage compared to common phenotypes. Evidence from humans and other species implicates frequency-dependent survival in the maintenance of molecular, morphological and health-related polymorphisms. As a controlled manipulation in nature, this study provides unequivocal support for frequency-dependent survival--an evolutionary process capable of maintaining extreme polymorphism.