Whether evolution will be rapid enough to rescue declining populations will depend upon population size, the supply of genetic variation, the degree of maladaptation and the historical direction of selection. We examined whether the level of environmental stress experienced by a population prior to abrupt environmental change affects the probability of evolutionary rescue (ER). Hundreds of populations of two species of yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Saccharomyces paradoxus were exposed to a range of sublethal concentrations of salt for approximately a hundred generations before transfer to a concentration of salt lethal to the ancestor (150 g l(-1) NaCl). The fitness of surviving populations of both species was a quadratic function of yield: fitness was greatest for large populations that had been selected on low salt concentrations (less than 20 g l(-1) NaCl) and small populations that had adapted to high salt (more than 80 g l(-1) NaCl). However, differences occurred between species in the probability of ER. The frequency of ER was positively correlated with salt concentration for S. cerevisiae, but negatively correlated with salt concentration in S. paradoxus. These results not only demonstrate that past environmental conditions can determine the probability of ER after abrupt environmental change, but also suggest that there may even be differences between closely related species that are worth further exploration.