In theory, parthenogenetic lineages have low evolutionary potential because they inexorably accumulate deleterious mutations and do not generate much genotypic diversity. As a result, most parthenogenetic taxa occupy the terminal nodes of phylogenetic trees. The rate and mode of development of parthenogenesis are important factors to consider when assessing its costs and benefits since they determine both the level of genetic diversity and the ecological adaptability of the resulting lineages. The origin of parthenogenesis is polyphyletic in many taxa, suggesting that genetic systems maintaining sexuality are often labile. In addition, the loss of sex may be achieved in several ways, leading to parthenogenetic lineages with distinct genetic profiles. This could then influence not only the fate of such lineages in the long term, but also the outcome of competition with their sexual counterparts in the short term. In this paper, we review the possible evolutionary routes to parthenogenesis based on a survey of the phylogenetic relationships between sexual and parthenogenetic lineages in a broad range of animals. We also examine the different mechanisms by which parthenogenetic lineages could arise, and discuss the influence of these mechanisms on both the genetic properties and the ecological life styles of the resulting lineages. © 2003 The Linnean Society of London. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2003, 79, 151–163.