- During macropinocytosis, cells remodel their morphologies for the uptake of extracellular matter. This endocytotic mechanism relies on the collapse and closure of precursory structures, which are propagating actin-based, ring-shaped vertical undulations at the dorsal (top) cell membrane, a.k.a. circular dorsal ruffles (CDRs). As such, CDRs are essential to a range of vital and pathogenic processes alike. Here we show, based on both experimental data and theoretical analysis, that CDRs are propagating fronts of actin polymerization in a bistable system. The theory relies on a novel mass-conserving reaction–diffusion model, which associates the expansion and contraction of waves to distinct counter-propagating front solutions. Moreover, the model predicts that under a change in parameters (for example, biochemical conditions) CDRs may be pinned and fluctuate near the cell boundary or exhibit complex spiral wave dynamics due to a wave instability. We observe both phenomena also in our experiments indicating the conditions for which macropinocytosis is suppressed.