The goal of this review was to provide a historical overview of how molecular techniques have increased the understanding of the ecology and evolution of the family Syngnathidae (pipefishes, seahorses and seadragons). Molecular studies based primarily on mitochondrial DNA markers have proved their worth by elucidating complex phylogenetic relationships within the family. Phylogeographic studies, which have revealed how life-history traits and past climatic events shape geographic distributions and patterns of genetic variation within syngnathid species, also provide interesting case studies for the conservation and management of threatened species. The application of microsatellite DNA markers has opened a floodgate of studies concerned with the breeding biology of these fishes, which are interesting due to their unique reproductive mode of male pregnancy. Research in this area has contributed significantly to the understanding of mating patterns and sexual selection. Molecular markers may also be employed in studies of demography, migration and local breeding population sizes. Genomic studies have identified genes that are probably involved in male pregnancy and promise additional insights into various aspects of syngnathid biology at the level of the gene. Despite these advances, much more remains to be explored. Goals for future research should include: (1) a more inclusive phylogeny to resolve outstanding issues concerning the relationships within the family and higher order taxa, (2) a broader use of molecular studies to aid management and conservation efforts, (3) the inclusion of more genera in comparative behavioural studies and (4) the continued development of genomic resources for syngnathids to facilitate comparative genomic work.