Horstmeyer, Leonhard; Tuan Minh Pham; Jan Korbel and Stefan Thurner

The collapse of ecosystems, the extinction of species, and the breakdown of economic and financial networks usually hinges on topological properties of the underlying networks, such as the existence of self-sustaining (or autocatalytic) feedback cycles. Such collapses can be understood as a massive change of network topology, usually accompanied by the extinction of a macroscopic fraction of nodes and links. It is often related to the breakdown of the last relevant directed catalytic cycle within a dynamical system. Without detailed structural information it seems impossible to state, whether a network is robust or if it is likely to collapse in the near future. Here we show that it is nevertheless possible to predict collapse for a large class of systems that are governed by a linear (or linearized) dynamics. To compute the corresponding early warning signal, we require only non-structural information about the nodes’ states such as species abundances in ecosystems, or company revenues in economic networks. It is shown that the existence of a single directed cycle in the network can be detected by a “quantization effect” of node states, that exists as a direct consequence of a corollary of the Perron–Frobenius theorem. The proposed early warning signal for the collapse of networked systems captures their structural instability without relying on structural information. We illustrate the validity of the approach in a transparent model of co-evolutionary ecosystems and show this quantization in systems of species evolution, epidemiology, and population dynamics.