Cellular protrusions create complex cell surface topographies, but biomechanical mechanisms regulating their formation and arrangement are largely unknown. To study how protrusions form, we focused on the morphogenesis of microridges, elongated actin-based structures that are arranged in maze-like patterns on the apical surfaces of zebrafish skin cells. Microridges form by accreting simple finger-like precursors. Live imaging demonstrated that microridge morphogenesis is linked to apical constriction. A nonmuscle myosin II (NMII) reporter revealed pulsatile contractions of the actomyosin cortex, and inhibiting NMII blocked apical constriction and microridge formation. A biomechanical model suggested that contraction reduces surface tension to permit the fusion of precursors into microridges. Indeed, reducing surface tension with hyperosmolar media promoted microridge formation. In anisotropically stretched cells, microridges formed by precursor fusion along the stretch axis, which computational modeling explained as a consequence of stretch-induced cortical flow. Collectively, our results demonstrate how contraction within the 2D plane of the cortex can pattern 3D cell surfaces.

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