Ostracodes are ecologically diverse at the present day, inhabiting marine, nonmarine and (semi)terrestrial environments. Modern benthic faunas are dominated by Podocopa (marine and nonmarine Podocopida, marine Platycopida, and extremely rare marine Palaeocopida), while the Myodocopa (Myodocopida and Halocyprida) are diverse in the marine pelagic realm, as well as having many nektobenthic taxa. Their excellent fossil record facilitates reconstructions of their phylogenetic relationships and ecological adaptations throughout their Phanerozoic history. The earliest known ostracodes are of Ordovician age, when representatives of the extant orders Podocopida, Platycopida and Palaeocopida were already present, together with (possible) early Myodocopa and extinct orders such as the Leperditicopida. Cambrian bivalved arthropods such as bradoriids and phosphatocopids are no longer regarded as Ostracoda.
Ordovician ostracodes were predominantly marine meiobenthos, diversifying into depth-related assemblages dominated by palaeocopids. The beginnings of podocopan radiations in marginal marine environments (brackish and hypersaline waters) are seen in the Silurian, as is an ecological shift of nektobenthic myodocopans to form the first pelagic ostracode faunas. Of the diverse marine Paleozoic palaeocopids, only a single lineage, the puncioids, survived beyond the Permian and today live interstitially in high-energy shallow marine environments. Post-Paleozoic marine benthic ostracode faunas are dominated by cytheroidean podocopids which gave rise to several radiations in the Mesozoic and Cenozoic. The healdiid metacopines (podocopans), of Devonian origins, enjoyed a marine radiation in the Triassic and Early Jurassic and then became extinct. Marine platycopids were also significant components of Mesozoic marine faunas and are relatively diverse in warm, shallow carbonate environments today.
Suggestions that the first freshwater ostracodes were Devonian leperditicopids are controversial; undoubted nonmarine / freshwater radiations developed during the Early Carboniferous, including darwinuloidean and carbonitoidean podocopids and possibly some platycopids, together with cytheroidean podocopids (limnocytherids) in the Late Carboniferous. Of these only the darwinuloideans and limnocytherids survived the end-Permian extinctions and are still found in modern nonmarine waters; however, the dominant freshwater ostracodes today are the cypridoidean podocopids, whose radiation began in the Triassic and attained explosive proportions in the Late Jurassic - Early Cretaceous (although there are controversial suggestions of Paleozoic origins for this group). In addition to the limnocytherids there have been several other, separate invasions of nonmarine waters by cytheroidean podocopids, notably the cytherideids and the commensal entocytherids. Radiations in damp terrestrial environments have been initiated by both marine and nonmarine groups, but such invasions lack a recognized fossil record; (semi)terrestrial cypridoideans and darwinuloideans may represent Late Mesozoic radiations, while the Terrestricytheroidea, with marine affinities, may be much older, possibly Late Paleozoic in origin.