The importance of transient dynamics in ecological systems and in the models that describe them has become increasingly recognized. However, previous work has typically treated each instance of these dynamics separately. We review both empirical examples and model systems, and outline a classification of transient dynamics based on ideas and concepts from dynamical systems theory. This classification provides ways to understand the likelihood of transients for particular systems, and to guide investigations to determine the timing of sudden switches in dynamics and other characteristics of transients. Implications for both management and underlying ecological theories emerge.