Blessed in more ways than one
Australia, located on the world's smallest continent, is surrounded by the Indian, Southern and Pacific oceans. A vast arid area covers about 70% of the continent, with tropical monsoon areas to the north and a Mediterranean and temperate climate to the south.
Ocean currents and phenomena such as El Niño influence the country's climate, with droughts a particularly worrying aspect of climate change's impact on the country.
Australia is a country of great biodiversity, despite the extensive arid areas that cover most of the country.
About 85% of flowering plants, 84% of mammals, more than 45% of birds, and 89% of in-shore, temperate-zone fish are endemic (found nowhere else in the world).
Australia's marine habitats range from coral reefs to seagrass plains, giant kelp forests and the sand-bottomed habitats that cover major parts of the continental shelf.
In 2001, it was estimated there were 1,478 species listed as either endangered or vulnerable at the national level. Australian species include the platypus and echidna, the kangaroo, koala, wombat, and birds such as the emu and kookaburra.
Australia was first colonized by hunter-gatherer human communities some 42,000 - 48,000 years ago, and their descendents survive – barely – today in various parts of the country. Although most people speak English, a growing number of immigrants has coloured the range of languages spoken in Australia.
Some 64% of Australians are Christians, 5% identify as followers of non-Christian religions and about 19% are categorised as having "No Religion".
Australia has one of the most prosperous economies in the world. Main exports in 2006 included metalliferous ores and metal scrap, coal, non-ferrous metals, petrol and petrol-products. A persistent drought in the southeast of the country has constrained agricultural output in recent years.
In 2006, life expectancy at birth was 81 years.