Transmissible plasmids spread genes encoding antibiotic resistance and other traits to new bacterial species. Here we report that laboratory populations of Escherichia coli with a newly acquired IncQ plasmid often evolve 'satellite plasmids' with deletions of accessory genes and genes required for plasmid replication. Satellite plasmids are molecular parasites: their presence reduces the copy number of the full-length plasmid on which they rely for their continued replication. Cells with satellite plasmids gain an immediate fitness advantage from reducing burdensome expression of accessory genes. Yet, they maintain copies of these genes and the complete plasmid, which potentially enables them to benefit from and transmit the traits they encode in the future. Evolution of satellite plasmids is transient. Cells that entirely lose accessory gene function or plasmid mobility dominate in the long run. Satellite plasmids also evolve in Snodgrassella alvi colonizing the honey bee gut, suggesting that this mechanism may broadly contribute to the importance of IncQ plasmids as agents of bacterial gene transfer in nature.