West Coast
Los Angeles Times

A biologist yearns to discover the secrets of Watts Towers’ shells

LOS ANGELES — Thirteen miles from the coast, marine biologist Bruno Pernet was himself surrounded by concrete, asphalt and an assortment of roughly 10,000 seashells. There were the iridescent shells of black abalone, the chalky shells of California Venus clams and the sun-bleached shells of Pismo clams.

No such specimens had seen the ocean for decades, and some had been on dry land for nearly a century. All of them adorn the Watts Towers, the folk-art monument that rises like a do-it-yourself cathedral above a neighborhood of modest one-story homes in South Los Angeles.

Pernet spends most of his professional time studying the larval stages of worms and snails that inhabit the Southern California coast. But over the past 10 years, he has channeled some of his scientific expertise into this national historic landmark in pursuit of an unlikely obsession.

His goal is to identify the species and provenance of all the shells on the 17 structures that make up the iconic sculpture. He calls it the Watts Towers Bivalve Inventory Project.

It is an audacious and time-consuming undertaking, but he believes it is scientifically worthwhile.

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