Sculpin fishes of the North American Pacific Coast provide an ideal opportunity to examine whether adaptive morphological character shifts have facilitated occupation of novel habitat types because of their well-described phylogeny and ecology. In this group, the basal-rooted species primarily occupy the subtidal habitat, whereas the species in the most distal clades are found in the intertidal. We tested multiple evolutionary models to determine whether changes in body size and changes in number of scales are adaptive for habitat use in sculpins. Based on a statistically robust, highly resolved molecular phylogeny of 26 species of sculpins, in combination with morphometric and habitat affinity data, our analyses show that an adaptive model based on habitat use best explains changes in body size and number of scales. The habitat model was statistically supported over models of neutral evolution, stabilizing selection across all habitats, and three clade-based models. We suggest that loss of scales and reduction of body size in the intertidal may facilitate cutaneous breathing in air when tidepools become hypoxic during low tides. This study demonstrates how the combined use of phylogenetic, ecological and statistical approaches helps to identify traits that are likely adaptive to novel habitats.