Apparent integrated backscatter (AIB) is a common ultrasound parameter used to assess cartilage matrix degeneration. However, the specific contributions of chondrocytes, proteoglycan and collagen to AIB remain unknown. To reveal these relationships, this work examined biopsies and cross sections of human, ovine and bovine cartilage with 40-MHz ultrasound biomicroscopy. Site-matched estimates of collagen concentration, proteoglycan concentration, collagen orientation and cell number density were employed in quasi-least-squares linear regression analyses to model AIB. A positive correlation (R2 = 0.51, p < 10−4) between AIB and a combination model of cell number density and collagen concentration was obtained for collagen orientations approximately perpendicular (>70°) to the sound beam direction. These findings indicate causal relationships between AIB and cartilage structural parameters and could aid in more sophisticated future interpretations of ultrasound backscatter.