Members of the genus are long and cylindrical, with very thick exoskeletons. Indeed, the elytra are so thick that it is often necessary to drill a hole in them in order to mount specimens. Species living north of the Rio Grande are almost all uniformly black in colour, while the tropical species are almost all strongly patterned in contrasting black and white. The animal's head is largely hidden by the thorax. The elytra are fused together, rendering Zopherus species unable to fly.
Zopherus species are adapted for boring into wood, some species even being reported to bore into sound wood, rather than only dead wood. Z. tristis lives under the bark of the desert tamarisk in the Colorado Desert, while Z. granicollis bores into the root crowns of Jeffrey pine (Pinus jeffreyi) and single-leaf pine (Pinus monophylla).
The genus Zopherus encompasses species previously referred to three other genera, Megazopherus, Zopherinus and Zopherodes, all of which are now synonymized under Zopherus. Many of the species have also been known by a number of taxonomic synonyms. The genus was initially erected in 1832 by George Robert Gray, using the spelling Zopheros. This was later emended by Laporte de Castelnau to the more usual transliteration Zopherus; the authorship should nonetheless ascribed to Gray, and not to Laporte, as many authors have done.