The fast-start startle behavior is the primary mechanism of rapid escape in fishes and is a model system for examining neural circuit design and musculoskeletal function. To develop a dataset for evolutionary analysis of the startle response, the kinematics and muscle activity patterns of the fast-start were analyzed for four fish species at key branches in the phylogeny of vertebrates. Three of these species (Polypterus palmas, Lepisosteus osseus, and Amia calva) represent the base of the actinopterygian radiation. A fourth species (Oncorhynchus mykiss) provided data for a species in the central region of the teleost phylogeny. Using these data, we explored the evolution of this behavior within the phylogeny of vertebrates. To test the hypothesis that startle features are evolutionarily conservative, the variability of motor patterns and kinematics in fast-starts was described. Results show that the evolution of the startle behavior in fishes, and more broadly among vertebrates, is not conservative. The fast-start has undergone substantial change in suites of kinematics and electromyogram features, including the presence of either a one- or a two-stage kinematic response and change in the extent of bilateral muscle activity. Comparative methods were used to test the evolutionary hypothesis that changes in motor control are correlated with key differences in the kinematics and behavior of the fast-start. Significant evolutionary correlations were found between several motor pattern and behavioral characters. These results suggest that the startle neural circuit itself is not conservative. By tracing the evolution of motor pattern and kinematics on a phylogeny, it is shown that major changes in the neural circuit of the startle behavior occur at several levels in the phylogeny of vertebrates.