Self-organized spatial patterns are ubiquitous in ecological systems and allow populations to adopt non-trivial spatial distributions starting from disordered configurations. These patterns form due to diverse nonlinear interactions among organisms and between organisms and their environment, and lead to the emergence of new (eco)system-level properties unique to self-organized systems. Such pattern consequences include higher resilience and resistance to environmental changes, abrupt ecosystem collapse, hysteresis loops, and reversal of competitive exclusion. Here, we review ecological systems exhibiting self-organized patterns. We establish two broad pattern categories depending on whether the self-organizing process is primarily driven by nonlinear density-dependent demographic rates or by nonlinear density-dependent movement. Using this organization, we examine a wide range of observational scales, from microbial colonies to whole ecosystems, and discuss the mechanisms hypothesized to underlie observed patterns and their system-level consequences. For each example, we review both the empirical evidence and the existing theoretical frameworks developed to identify the causes and consequences of patterning. Finally, we trace qualitative similarities across systems and propose possible ways of developing a more quantitative understanding of how self-organization operates across systems and observational scales in ecology.
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