So, as I pack up, and consider what I absolutely need, and what I can do without, I'll give you a little bit of a better idea of what I'll be doing for 5 months in the middle of the rainforest. I will be studying these guys:
The gibbon pictured here is doing what gibbons do best; calling. Gibbons live in "monogamous" pairs (of course there's always cheating). Pairs often create beautiful duets together in order to maintain their territories. They also produce complex calls in response to predators. These calls are different depending on the type of predator (eagle, leopard or snake). This is what the graduate student I am assisting is studying. So in order to study this alarm call behavior we will be using predator models and playing recordings of alarm calls from different gibbons and recording vocal responses from the gibbons to these stimuli. Then we will see how gibbons react differently to both different predator types, and to hearing different alarm calls. This is the best I can do to explain the project now, but in 5 months when I'm home I'm sure I'll be an expert and will talk your ear off about it.
So, hopefully that satisfies you're curiosity of what I'm traveling halfway around the world to do. As for why it matters, I don't really want to have to convince you. But basically, gibbons have very complex calls, and some believe they display some precursors to syntax (or "language rules") in these complex calls. By varying the order of the sounds they produce, they change the meaning of their call. A better understanding of this could helps us learn more about the evolution of human language. So we're trying to figure out why humans can talk, good enough justification?