Dispersal is a factor of great importance in determining a species spatial distribution. Short distance dispersal (SDD) and long distance dispersal (LDD) strategies yield very different spatial distributions. In this paper we compare spatial spread patterns from SDD and LDD simulations, contrast them with patterns from field data, and assess the significance of biological and population traits. Simulated SDD spread using an exponential function generates a single circular patch with a well-defined invasion front showing a travelling-wave structure. The invasive spread is relatively slow as it is restricted to reproductive individuals occupying the outer zone of the circular patch. As a consequence of this dispersal dynamics, spread is slower than spread generated by LDD. In contrast, the early and fast invasion of the entire habitat mediated by power law LDD not only involves a significantly greater invasion velocity, but also an entirely different habitat occupation. As newly dispersed individuals soon reach very distant portions of the habitat as well as the vicinity of the original dispersal focus, new growing patches are generated while the main patch increases its own growth absorbing the closest patches. As a consequence of both dispersal and lower density dependence, growth of the occupied area is much faster than with SDD. SDD and LDD also differ regarding pattern generation. With SDD, fractal patterns appear only in the border of the invasion front in SDD when competitive interaction with residents is included. In contrast, LDD patterns show fractality both in the spatial arrangements of patches as well as in patch borders. Moreover, values of border fractal dimension inform on the dispersal process in relation with habitat heterogeneity. The distribution of patch size is also scale-free, showing two power laws characteristic of small and large patch sizes directly arising from the dispersal and reproductive dynamics. Ecological factors like habitat heterogeneity are relevant for dispersal, although its importance is greater for SDD, lowering the invasion velocity. Among the life history traits considered, adult mortality, the juvenile bank and mean dispersal distance are the most relevant for SDD. For LDD, habitat heterogeneity and changes in life history traits are not so relevant, causing minor changes in the values of the scale-free parameters. Our work on short and long distance dispersal shows novel theoretical differences between SDD and LDD in invasive systems (mechanisms of pattern formation, fractal and scaling properties, relevance of different life history traits and habitat variables) that correspond closely with field examples and were not analyzed, at least in this degree of detail, by the previously existing models. © 2011 The Authors. Ecography © 2011 Ecography.