Despite their importance as evolutionary and ecological model systems, the phylogenetic relationships among gasterosteiforms remain poorly understood, complicating efforts to understand the evolutionary origins of the exceptional morphological and behavioural diversity of this group. The present review summarizes current knowledge on the origin and evolution of syngnathids, a gasterosteiform family with a highly developed form of male parental care, combining inferences based on morphological and molecular data with paleontological evidence documenting the evolutionary history of the group. Molecular methods have provided new tools for the study of syngnathid relationships and have played an important role in recent conservation efforts. Despite recent insights into syngnathid evolution, however, a survey of the literature reveals a strong taxonomic bias towards studies on the species-rich genera Hippocampus and Syngnathus, with a lack of data for many morphologically unique members of the family. The study of the evolutionary pressures responsible for generating the high diversity of syngnathids would benefit from a wider perspective, providing a comparative framework in which to investigate the evolution of the genetic, morphological and behavioural traits of the group as a whole.