Spatial structure regulates and modifies processes at several levels of ecological organization (e.g. individual/genetic, population and community) and is thus a key component of complex systems, where knowledge at a small scale can be insufficient for understanding system behaviour at a larger scale. Recent syntheses outline potential applications of network theory to ecological systems, but do not address the implications of physical structure for network dynamics. There is a specific need to examine how dendritic habitat structure, such as that found in stream, hedgerow and cave networks, influences ecological processes. Although dendritic networks are one type of ecological network, they are distinguished by two fundamental characteristics: (1) both the branches and the nodes serve as habitat, and (2) the specific spatial arrangement and hierarchical organization of these elements interacts with a species’ movement behaviour to alter patterns of population distribution and abundance, and community interactions. Here, we summarize existing theory relating to ecological dynamics in dendritic networks, review empirical studies examining the population- and community-level consequences of these networks, and suggest future research integrating spatial pattern and processes in dendritic systems.