Localized ecological interactions can generate striking large-scale spatial patterns in ecosystems through spatial self-organization. Possible mechanisms include oscillating consumer–resource interactions, localized disturbance-recovery processes and scale-dependent feedback. Despite abundant theoretical literature, studies revealing spatial self-organization in real ecosystems are limited. Recently, however, many examples of regular pattern formation have been discovered, supporting the importance of scale-dependent feedback. Here, we review these studies, showing regular pattern formation to be a general phenomenon rather than a peculiarity. We provide a conceptual framework explaining how scale-dependent feedback determines regular pattern formation in ecosystems. More empirical studies are needed to better understand regular pattern formation in ecosystems, and how this affects the response of ecosystems to global environmental change.