The dorsal crest of newts (Salamandridae) is a novel, phenotypically plastic, sexually selected trait that may evolve in association with complex courtship behaviours. We estimated a near-comprehensive, time-calibrated phylogeny for salamandrids and analysed the evolution of their crests and display behaviour. Different models give conflicting reconstructions for crest evolution, showing that likelihood can estimate incorrect ancestral states with strong statistical support. The best-fitting model suggests that crests evolved once and were lost repeatedly, supporting the hypothesis that sexually selected traits may be frequently lost. We demonstrate the correlated evolution of crests and courtship behaviour and show that species with larger numbers of crest-related traits have larger repertoires of behaviours. We also show that phenotypically plastic morphological traits can be maintained over long macroevolutionary timescales (∼25–48 Myr). Finally, we use salamandrids to address how novel structures may arise, and support a model involving the expansion and subdivision of pre-existing structures.